Monday, 20 January, 2020

Washington’s Draft State Rail Plan Presents Foggy But Promising Future

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BNSF Railways track heading into Downtown Seattle from Interbay. (Credit: Doug Trumm)
BNSF Railways track heading into Downtown Seattle from Interbay. (Credit: Doug Trumm)

Washington’s long-awaited draft state rail plan update has been released. Due out in 2019, the draft finally surfaced last week from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) highlighting the status of the state’s railway infrastructure as well as projected demand and needs. The draft plan shows that mainline railways are becoming more congested, which is in line with a growing economy and population.

Also featured in the draft plan are forthcoming passenger rail enhancements, possible Amtrak Cascades service growth scenarios, and discussion of intercity passenger rail studies underway. A final state rail plan is expected to be adopted in the spring, but the public can comment on the draft plan through February 14th. The plan could serve as a catalyst for a major expansion of passenger rails service.

Context of the state railway system

A map of railway ownership throughout Washington. (WSDOT)
A map of railway ownership throughout Washington. (WSDOT)

The bulk of Washington’s railway system is privately owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and Union Pacific. Several dozen other private and public entities (e.g., state, ports, and local governments) own shortline railway segments for economic development purposes that connect to the mainlines. Thus, passenger rail is largely operated over private tracks owned by BNSF. The exception is the Point Defiance Bypass, which is forms a small segment of tracks from Tacoma to the Nisqually Valley and is owned by Sound Transit. That segment currently has commuter rail service as far south as Lakewood but will once again feature Amtrak Cascades service sometime this year.

The draft rail plan includes a baseline analysis of mainline railway service levels as of 2016 and three growth scenarios through 2040. The analysis uses the traditional transportation planning quantitative measure: level of service (LOS). There are five LOS ratings with LOS A being limited to no delays and LOS F involving regular delays and system breakdown. All three growth scenarios assume no additional track improvements are made to facilitate more capacity.

Melrose Promenade’s First Phase to Bring Raised Intersection, Limited Protected Bike Lanes

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Last month, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) released designs for street improvements on Melrose Avenue, on the very western edge of Capitol Hill and northern First Hill. The improvements are the product of a group of advocates who advanced a vision for the corridor that they called the Melrose Promenade. It culminated in a conceptual plan finalized in 2013, and a $3 million award for implementation was granted by the Puget Sound Regional Council in 2016. Now improvements are getting ready to hit the ground as early as this fall.

The concept plan is focused on transforming the corridor into an open space amenity, whereas SDOT’s latest designs are focused more on traditional basic mobility in the corridor. However, these improvements could lay the groundwork for more radical changes in the future. Or they could also become the entire extent of the improvements as other transportation projects vie for common funding sources.

Map showing improvements coming to Melrose Avenue with protected bike lanes between Pine St and Denny Way (SDOT)
Map showing improvements coming to Melrose Avenue with protected bike lanes between Pine Street and Denny Way. (SDOT)

The Melrose Promenade project’s scope has always focused on three different segments of Melrose Avenue: the urban southern part around Pike and Pine Streets, the long overlook section north of Denny with a clear view over I-5, and a far northern segment focused on improving the state-owned trail north of Roy Street. The improvements here do not involve that third segment at all.

It’s Well Past Time We Ditch Fossil Fuels

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Youth climate activists organized the first Fridays for the Future rally on March 22, 2019. District 4 City Council candidate Shaun Scott attended and gave a brief talk encouraging activists. (Photo by author)
Youth climate activists organized the first Fridays for the Future rally on March 22, 2019. District 4 City Council candidate Shaun Scott attended and gave a brief talk encouraging activists. (Photo by author)

Yesterday, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced executive action ending the use of fracked gas infrastructure in City buildings. It represents a small step toward decoupling our government from fossil fuels and achieving the vision of the Seattle Green New Deal, but an important one.

“The mayor’s action today on municipal buildings is an important first step that we’re happy to support,” said Brittney Bush Bollay, chair of the Seattle Sierra Club. “This is one step of many necessary to save our lungs, our futures, and our wallets.”

Sierra Club’s statement also framed the ban on fracked gas hookups–which Seattle and Bellingham are considering taking citywide–as a showdown with Seattle’s private for-profit energy provider: Puget Sound Energy: “Mayor Durkan’s decision is an example for other elected officials to follow, given Puget Sound Energy’s (PSE’s) upcoming $1 million astroturf campaign to parade fracked gas as a viable future. PSE continues pushing for infrastructure proven to harm people and lose money. Homeowners, renters, and small businesses should not bear the burden of bailing out millionaires and utilities who choose to make unwise and dirty investments.”

The Mayor’s Executive Order requires all new or substantially altered City of Seattle buildings to operate without fossil fuels, and “by January 2021, the City will develop a strategy to eliminate fossil fuel use in existing City buildings.” The executive order also directs City departments to work with the Green New Deal Oversight Board and the Mayor’s Youth Climate Council “to integrate the following Green New Deal principles into City work:

  • Reduce pollution at the rate of progress scientists say is necessary to limit average global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C; 
  • Promote economic opportunity and inclusive access to stable, well-paying jobs; and
  • Advance environmental justice by ensuring the benefits and investments of the clean energy transition accrue to those communities and populations historically most burdened by the fossil fuel economy.”

“We must eliminate our City’s reliance on fossil fuels–from cars to buildings,” Mayor Durkan said in a statement. “More than half of the world’s population lives in cities. We have an opportunity in Seattle to chart the right response to climate change, and that starts with actions like the ones we announced today to limit our greenhouse gas emissions.”

Breaking up with fossil fuels is hard to do

Shortly after the announcement, I was listening to NPR Marketplace in which Kai Ryssdal was gushing about how the stock market can still go up even with missile attacks in Iraq and Trump threatening war. Ryssdal had an energy policy expert to dissect what the threat of war means for your stock portfolio. The expert–Amy Myers Jaffe of the Council on Foreign Relations–warned oil prices might go up and said low oil prices boost the economy by encouraging people to buy cars, which then inflates gross domestic product (GDP), the measure of all economic output within a country. A not-so-virtuous cycle

“We know from past oil shocks that Americans stop buying cars when the price of oil is going up, and of course that would be very bad for the economy because that’s a big part of the GDP of the United States,” Jaffe said.

JUMP Is the Last Bikeshare Standing After Lime Pulls Out

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JUMP is the only bikeshare operator in Seattle as of 2020. (Photo by author)
JUMP is the only bikeshare operator in Seattle as of 2020. (Photo by author)

JUMP is the only bikeshare operator left standing in Seattle in 2020. Although the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has permitted more than 10,000 bikeshare bikes in the city, JUMP’s estimated 3,500 e-assist bikes are the sum total for now, after Lime suspended its bikeshare program at year’s end. The good news is that a company spokesperson said JUMP has no plans to reduce its fleet, and may add to it with scooters after the city ends its scootershare ban and launches its pilot program this spring.

“We’ve seen significant growth since we launched and have no plans of scaling back operations going into 2020,” JUMP spokesperson Nathan Hambley said. “We’re also optimistic about the possibility of operating both bikes and scooters in Seattle like we already do in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Paris.”

Lime made a different calculation, although apparently they haven’t totally ruled out bringing back bikes. Lime tried to deny it when The Urbanist caught wind of layoffs to its bike maintenance staff, painting it as a winter downsizing. However, a few short weeks later they were shutting down their bikeshare operation. Lime spokesperson Alex Youn said the company is pulling bikes to shift focus to rolling out scooters.

Bike ridership does dip in Seattle’s dark rainy winter months. However, both programs together clocked a respectable 140,000 rides in November, so some users are clearly happy to keep on pedaling even as the weather worsens. It’s safe to say the lion’s share of those rides were on JUMP bikes. Just how decisive JUMP’s advantage isn’t clear since both companies keep their data fairly close and SDOT reports only aggregate top-line data. But whatever the share, it was enough to convince Lime to get the heck out of dodge even after a dominant first-year of operation.

Ridership declines in fall months as it approaches its winter trough. (Credit: SDOT)
Ridership declines in fall months as it approaches its winter trough. (Credit: SDOT)

The data shows that bikeshare ridership has hit a plateau in Seattle. September 2019’s 216,000 total was only a few thousand rides higher than September 2018. July 2018 remains the highest ridership month in Seattle bikeshare history, although 2019 nearly matched with fewer operators and only e-bikes, which are zippier but much more expensive to rent.

Midweek Video: Why Are There So Few City-States?

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Dave Amos of City Beautiful takes on the topic of city-states. He explores why they were more common in the past, how they thrive today, and ponders if we will see a resurgence of them in the future.

Seattle Planning Commission Urges City to Get Ambitious with Growth Strategy

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Seattle Planning Commissions's Growth Strategy White Paper dropped on January 7th, 2020.
Seattle Planning Commissions's Growth Strategy White Paper dropped on January 7th, 2020.

Yesterday, the Seattle Planning Commission released a Growth Strategy White Paper calling for dramatic changes to Seattle’s zoning. The white paper builds upon the commission’s Neighborhoods For All Report from last year, and single-family zoning reform clearly remains on the agenda.

“Wrestling with housing crises of their own, Vancouver B.C., Minneapolis MN, and Oregon State have already taken action to allow small scale increases in density,” the paper states. “In response to the housing crisis, many cities across the country are exploring updates to their residential zoning to allow up to three or four units per lot.” [emphasis original]

Switching base zoning to triplexes or fourplexes will be viewed as revolutionary to many Seattleites. A draft recommendation of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) report was scuttled for less. But other cities have led the way and shown it’s possible, and conditions in Seattle–including the city council–have changed.

For one, in the five years since HALA backlash, rents have continued to climb along with the burden and displacement pressure on tenants, who have grown to a majority of the city and flexed more political muscle. Moreover, our uneven growth has become even more stark as urban villages have shouldered an incredible load when it comes to infill development despite representing a tiny fraction of the overall land. The planning commission notes a whopping 80% of Seattle’s housing growth over the past decade or so has been within Urban Villages.

“Between 2006 and 2017, Urban Villages have accommodated 28,240 of the 35,300 new housing units–80% of the city’s recent housing growth,” the commission wrote. “In that same time, areas that are zoned single-family (which make up 75% of the residential land) only received 6% of the new development.”

Mixed-use and multi-family units represent an outstanding 94% of new units in Seattle from 2006 to 2017. (Graphic by Seattle Planning Commission)
Mixed-use and multi-family units represent an outstanding 94% of new units in Seattle from 2006 to 2017. (Graphic by Seattle Planning Commission)

The report emphasizes the racial equity implications of such a growth strategy: “Seattle’s existing growth strategy needs revision and evolution to firmly establish a racial equity framework that can respond to the limitations we see in its present form.” To put it geographically, growth is being concentrated in Seattle’s core, the University District, Ballard, the Rainier Valley, while places like Northeast Seattle and Magnolia are nearly off-limits.

Jump In Traffic Volumes Points To An Uphill Climb To Reduce Emissions

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Seattle’s average daily vehicle volumes increased by the largest amount in more than a decade in 2018, the most recent year of data available. The annual traffic report just released by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) counted more than 36,000 additional vehicles on Seattle’s streets per day, on average, compared to 2017–an increase of 3.6%. This outpaced the population growth for that year, which was 2.3%, for the first time in the past decade. Transit ridership growth for 2018 was also lower and well below the increase in traffic volume, as was revealed last month when King County Metro released its 2018 numbers.

Total average daily traffic in Seattle increased by 3.6% between 2017 and 2018, to 1,037,116 average daily vehicles (City of Seattle)
Total average daily traffic in Seattle increased by 3.6% between 2017 and 2018, to 1,037,116 average daily vehicles. (City of Seattle)

Stepping back, the latest numbers show that at last count the volume of cars on Seattle’s streets is pretty much exactly where it has been for most of the last decade. Which is remarkable considering the growth that the city has seen in its population and employment over the same timeframe. Seattle over the last decade added people and jobs without an associated jump in traffic volumes.

SCALE Thwarted Again in Latest Appeal of MHA Rezones

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Even a few miles from Downtown, single family homes start taking over. Madrona is not an urban village. (Photo by author)
Even a few miles from Downtown, single family homes start taking over. Madrona is not an urban village. (Photo by author)

Last week, the Growth Management Hearings Board issued a ruling denying an appeal of recent zoning changes brought by a coalition of homeowner groups that call themselves the Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability, and Equity (SCALE). With the ruling, Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) upzones will stay in force in the 27 urban villages that received them in March 2019.

And that means inclusionary zoning will stay in force, too, since MHA trades rezones allowing bigger buildings for affordability requirements mandating some of the new homes are affordable. Remove the upzones and you remove the affordable housing requirement due to a clawback provision in the legislation. In the “citywide” batch of rezones the mandatory affordability requirement ranges from 5% to 11% of newly constructed units depending on the value of the upzone–or the equivalent in-lieu payment into the City’s affordable housing trust fund if the affordable homes aren’t created on-site. The City projects MHA will create more than 6,000 affordable homes in ten years at no direct cost to taxpayers.

Through the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), the City of Seattle proposed to increase height and density limits in nearly all multifamily and commercial zones in Seattle and implement mandatory inclusionary zoning. Mayor Ed Murray had toyed with extending zoning changes into single-family zoning, which dominate about two-thirds of Seattle’s residential land, but then homeowner activists got wind of the plan and raised a large enough stink to change Ed’s mind. Only 6% of single-family zones remained in final version of the inclusionary rezone plan, which was branded MHA.

But the groups that composed SCALE weren’t satisfied simply killing the rezones in single-family zones and keeping apartment bans in place. They wanted to kill the whole MHA program–and so they sued and threw everything they could think of into their first appeal back in November 2017–43 issues in all. That appeal challenged the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) with the City’s Hearing Examiner. Below is a timeline of how everything went down.

MHA Rezone Timeline

  • July 2015 – A HALA committee member leaks a draft plan to Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat, unleashing a political firestorm that kills broader single family zone changes and ensures a lengthy Seattle process for the remaining rezones.
  • February 2017 – University District becomes first neighborhood where MHA is in effect after Seattle City Council unanimously rezones the neighborhood, save for The Ave.
  • April 2017 – City rezones Downtown and South Lake Union, implementing MHA in the city’s rapidly-growing core.
  • July 2017 – City passes Chinatown International District rezone.
  • November 2017 – SCALE files appeal of “Citywide” MHA EIS a few weeks after the City issued the FEIS.
  • June 2018 – Hearing Examiner’s pre-hearing ruling mostly sides with the City, dismissing several of SCALE’s issues.
  • November 2018 – Hearing Examiner issues ruling against SCALE and rules MHA can move ahead.
  • March 2019 – Seattle City Council passed “Citywide” MHA rezones and Mayor Jenny Durkan signed them into law. SCALE said it planned to sue via the the State’s Growth Management Hearings Board, but SCALE legal adviser Toby Thaler wouldn’t comment on how exactly.
  • November 2019 – Alex Pedersen narrowly wins election to the Seattle City Council in District 4 (on a platform stoking homeowner backlash) and hired Toby Thaler to be his council aide.
  • December 16, 2019 – Councilmember Pedersen calls a special hearing on protecting Seattle’s trees, which is one of the grounds in SCALE’s failed appeal.
  • December 30, 2019 – Growth Management Hearings Board issued a ruling dismissing SCALE’s appeal. “[T]he Board finds and concludes that the EIS is adequate and complies with the State,” the ruling states.

The hearings board ruling underscored that SCALE was off-base about tree canopy given how little of Seattle’s tree cover was affected by the MHA rezones.

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