Sunday, September 23, 2018

More details on the Mercer Island Station parking and bus connections

Mercer Island Station, as seen from the north side of I-90. Image from Sound Transit.

When East Link’s Mercer Island Station opens in 2023, it will link the Island with Downtown Seattle, UW, Bellevue and Overlake via frequent, fast and reliable transit. Being located in the median of I-90, the design of the station is straightforward. However, there are two concepts that need Sound Transit’s attention: parking and bus connections.


The current Mercer Island park-and-ride facility consists of a two-level garage located on the north side of I-90 and includes 447 parking spaces. The park-and-ride sees significant demand with the garage regularly being full by 7.30am on weekdays. However, only about half of the current users are island residents; the other half come mainly from the Eastside to take advantage of more buses and access to available parking, which may not as readily available at other park-and-rides in the Eastside. At previous East Link open houses, residents voiced their support in favor of a new park-and-ride facility that prioritizes use by Mercer Islanders.

A solution for Sound Transit is to provide more parking at the Marcer Island Community and Event Center (located at SE 24th St and 84th Ave SE), a quarter-mile from the station. Sound Transit is considering two options for parking, either a three-level garage or a surface lot. The parking garage would cost more, but it would have a much smaller footprint than the surface lot. It would also provide about 25 more parking spaces than the surface options (229 spaces versus 203 or 207 spaces). While the new park-and-ride will be farther from the freeway than the current one, there will be nothing keeping Eastsiders out of the new lot or saving parking spaces past 7.30am.

At the moment, there is no mention of pricing parking from Sound Transit. But, a six-month pilot project was carried out earlier this year at four park-and-rides operated by Sound Transit. The project allowed users, for a fee, to reserve a parking space until 9.30am at which time the space would become open to anyone. This pilot project should be implemented at Mercer Island to guarantee open spaces for later commuters or for Mercer Islanders.

Bus Connections

Instead of wasting hours and hours of bus service by continuing service of I-90 buses (like the ST 554 and the peak expresses) all the way to Downtown Seattle, Sound Transit and King County Metro will truncate them to Mercer Island where current bus riders will be forced transfer to East Link to continue their trip to Seattle. This will save as much 20 minutes per bus. Currently, 117 trips per direction on 9 routes (111, 114, 212, 214, 216, 217, 218, 219, 554) are operated between Mercer Island and Seattle. Together, the savings from these routes at least 78 hours of service each day.

Previous options presented involved the buses moving onto Mercer Island streets, adding dozens and dozens of buses per day to already clogged Mercer Island streets. The options would also have required a long walk from the bus stops to the station, which would have made forced transfers unattractive to bus riders. After receiving mostly negative comments from both bus riders and Mercer Island residents, Sound Transit rethought their options and came up with one that kept most buses off of streets while giving the shortest possible walking distance to bus riders.

MI Bus Transfer

A new transit center would be created on the 80th Ave SE Overpass, and Sound Transit’s Route 554 would both drop off and pick up passengers on the overpass as opposed to deviating off toward the park-and-ride. Transfers would be at the door of the station making it easy and convenient convenient for passengers to transfer under a covered facility protected from the weather. Meanwhile, King County Metro Route 216 would drop off at the station door, but pick up at the current transit center. Routes 204 and the now-defunct Routes 203 and 213 would stay on their current routing.

This is by far the best of the alternatives. It gives riders a very minor delay if buses and trains are being timed correctly, and keeps the buses in a single, concentrated area.

This also gives an opportunity to Sound Transit and King County Metro to completely rethink the network of I-90 peak expresses. King County Metro operates two routes, the 212 and 214, with the main purpose of skipping Mercer Island and gaining a couple minutes over Sound Transit Route 554. These routes could now be absorbed into Route 554. King County Metro Routes 216, 218 and 219 could be combined into one peak-only route, which is here described as the 216. King County Metro Route 217 would keep the same routing east of Mercer Island, with the reverse-peak Route 212 being converted into Route 217. King County Metro Routes 111 and 114 could end at South Bellevue Park and Ride instead of at Mercer Island, avoiding the merge across all lanes of I-90 westbound and taking advantage of the future HOV lanes on Bellevue Way on the eastbound journey. And, King County Metro Routes 114 and 240 could be combined, as at that point they will be very similar to the previously suggested reroute of the 240 (assuming the reroute goes ahead).

This would greatly simplify the inner Eastside bus network by combing the structure of nine routes (previously twelve) to a more reasonable four. The benefit of this is more consistent coverage, stop patterns, and increased headways on common corridors.

About Those Urine-Soaked Seats…


Picture 21
You’ve probably heard by now of the now-famous sixty urine-soaked seats. In what ended up making national news, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries fined Metro for one serious violation (not providing operators with unrestricted access to bathroom facilities when needed to relieve themselves, with specific attention to how bathrooms are often unavailable at night, not located at all route terminals, and with not enough time to access the bathroom if one is provided) and one general violation (no running water, soap, or paper towels for route 36 & 50 operators for over six years).

The language employed in the (public) documentation is harsh (“Describe on the form how you corrected each hazard, rather than what you intend to do in the future…. If we do not receive written confirmation you have corrected the hazards, we will take follow-up action, which may include additional penalties. If you provide us with false information, you may face criminal penalties.”), and I feel it is appropriate.

As an operator, my bladder and my mind are immensely grateful to learn of this. When the King County Council ordered Metro to tighten the schedules in 2009, in response to economic pressures and as a result of a now highly-questioned performance audit, many staff knew the ramifications would be far reaching: more accidents, more unreliable service, a decline in customer service quality and maintenance, and more work-related injuries for operators. All of those have panned out–even down to more operators needing kidney stone operations because of accumulated lack of access to restrooms. I’m grateful that such badly-needed attention is finally being brought to bear on the issue.

What I’d like to contribute regarding all this is a little further clarification on how you might end up with sixty urine-soaked driver seats. My frustration is not with Metro, but with certain folks’ misunderstanding of the issue. I would think such a thing might be self-explanatory, but a quick listen to Mr. Dori Monson, the local talk radio personality, reveals that it isn’t. I was directed to a recent show of his wherein he told Metro GM Kevin Desmond he couldn’t fathom how such a thing could happen. Monson cited how he once successfully sat in traffic for two hours fighting the urge, and that forty-five minutes on a bus ought to be nothing. Mr. Monson concluded by saying that drivers who soil seats should be fired.

I think the polite way to say this is that Bob Woodward isn’t going to rise from the grave to shower Monson with praise for investigative journalism. Mr. Desmond, as someone who clearly cares passionately for transit, its users, and its operators, acquitted himself reasonably well on the issue, but both individuals–Mr. Monson in particular–would do well to further inform themselves on the issue prior to discussing it on air.

Many routes are longer than forty-five minutes, and the breaks at the ends of those trips are regularly only five minutes– five scheduled minutes, that is. An eight-hour shift is required to have two fifteen minute breaks (drivers don’t get lunch breaks), and all the rest are often shorter. A real-world example: I drive a 97-minute 7/49 trip that needs to be that long, and needs more than the five minutes given at the end to balance out the very natural delays one will encounter over that time. Heaven help you if you get two red lights (three minutes), take a minute to answer someone’s questions, or if there’s someone inside the gas station bathroom at the end of the line.

Weekend schedules are older, and my weekend runcards give me 60-75 minutes to drive what is actually 90 minutes in real life, but the breaks aren’t any longer. The weekday and Sunday 49 terminal has a bathroom which closes at 10pm and 6pm, respectively, and the nearest reliable bathroom after that is six blocks away. The issue is not the length of the route (through-routes are convenient, fun to drive, and structurally very useful), but rather the unrealistic nature of the schedules themselves. When Service Planning writes runcards expecting you to get from 12th & Jackson to 5th & Jackson in two minutes, you just want to throw up your hands and invite them all out for a few honest-to-goodness, real-world, ground-level bus rides.

Some bathrooms are too often out of order, overused, too far away, or plagued with drug use. The 70 is famous for having consecutive six minute breaks ever since 2009–one legendary ten-hour and forty minute piece has just two breaks longer than ten minutes (fifteen each, and one is your very first one, when you don’t need it). The “no-pee” 24/124 has only a heavily drug-abused bathroom on one end, and a quarter-mile walk away on the other; the 11 has only one terminal, being a live loop, with a bathroom too far to reach in the allotted time, and which is closed after hours. And so on. In situations like this the operator is forced to make a decision between taking the time to care for his/her body, or receive the wrath of irked passengers who have been kept waiting. As Mr. Desmond has pointed out, this is not a decision they should have to make.

My hope is that this comes across not as a rant, but as an explanation. I’m compelled to share these realities as a corrective to the information which you might encounter from less-informed outlets. If your 70 is late, complain to the King County Council, not Metro. If your driver is stressed, mind that (s)he might not have had a restroom in the last six hours. The important thing is that thanks to voters, there is now actually funding available with which to address the issue, and the service can be improved to the benefit of both riders and drivers. All of which is to say: Hooray!

U-District Open Space Forum Wraps Up



The third and final public meeting on an update to the U-District neighborhood’s park plan was held on Wednesday night. Like the first meeting (I missed the second), the event was well attended and organized. Here, city staff and their consultants presented a synthesis of ideas they heard during group discussions at the previous meeting. The direction that the plan will take is ambitious and will embody the core values of the community. The current plan, last updated in 2006, hasn’t been extensively acted upon, but the recent creation of the Seattle Parks District will help improve and add park spaces here and citywide.

Aerial ViewThe catalyst for this public process is mostly the new light rail station that is due to open in 2021, seven years from now. The neighborhood currently has 14,000 residents, and by 2030 the station alone is expected to serve 12,000 daily commuters. The city is planning to increase height limits in anticipation of increased population and employment growth. However, the U-District also currently lacks an adequate amount of open space, with a three acre deficit by city standards. The University of Washington, the city’s largest employer and a magnet for youth and talent from around the world, is steadily growing. But its 600 acre main campus isn’t open to neighborhood residents for recreation and events.

A draft of recommendations to be listed in the parks includes six key elements. The first is to activate existing and planned parks. Most are along the neighborhood’s edge, including University Playground near I-5 and Cowen Park to the north. These spaces could be improved through better programming or simply letting residents know they exist, perhaps through flyers or a neighborhood wayfinding system. New park space is also opening within the next few years, including an expansion of Christie Park  and an addition to Sakuma Viewpoint on Portage Bay to the south.

The second idea is to establish a multitude of pocket parks so that most residents are within a five minute walk of open space. Pocket parks are small and intimate, provide relaxation space between larger parks, and oftentimes are on private property. While the city could acquire property for these types of parks, it may be more feasible to create incentives for future development to include pocket parks for public use. Such incentives usually include the exchange of open space for taller height limits.

Sunday Video: Johnny T’s Subway Tips


Johnny T’s Subway Tips by Glove and Boots on YouTube.

Hilariously good tips about how to ride transit right, especially if taking the subway in NYC. Johnny T has some excellent gems in this video. Happy Sunday!

What We’re Reading: A new parklet arrives on Second Avenue



Biking in Bellevue: Bellevue is planning to build out more trail along SR-520 and is reviewing options for bike lanes on 116th Avenue NE.

Hail to the Chief: Paulo Nunes-Ueno has been named as the new head of the Seattle Department of Transportation’s newly formed Transit Division. Nunes-Ueno is a long-time advocate for safer streets and transit.

New parklet: Second Avenue has a brand new parklet between Pike and Pine. It stretches half a block and integrates well with the bike lane.

Body cams: It looks like body cams are coming to the Capitol Hill patrols soon. This is a good step for keeping the public and officers honest.

Small adaptive reuse: It’s a tiny example of reusing a small space, but this red-brick boiler room is now a sweet guesthouse.

Clean streams: The Environmental Protection Agency is committing over $300m to cleaning up the Duwamish River once and for all.

Tandem garages: Pugetsoundscape shares the various pluses and minuses of different garage layouts, particularly in Snohomish County.

Blank screens: It looks like two more cinemas will be shutting the doors for good come January. Say goodbye to the Harvard Exit on Capitol Hill and the Varsity Theater in the University District.

Growing jobs: We all know Amazon is huge in Seattle, and it looks like it will grow even larger. By 2019, there could be as many as 71,500 employees–or at least enough room for them.

Inspiring: Even if you’re not the churchy type, this new Nordic church is pretty beautiful.

How economics works: There’s a lot of talk about taxation and how to do it right, but one of the most discredited economic theories is trickle down economics. The ultimate version of trickle down was tried in Kansas recently and has been a disaster while California raised progressive taxes and it’s been a boon.

Taking the train: In two charts, here’s why Northeast travelers take the train more than flying the friendly skies.

Move the people: It may seem contradictory, but slower speed limits actually move more people.

Bellevue budget: The City of Bellevue has passed a $1.46bn budget that has some great projects in it like infrastructure for the Spring District.

Updating the comp plan: The Department of Planning and Development needs more time to craft their Comprehensive Plan update, dubbed Seattle 2035. Look for adoption in 2016 instead of summer 2015.

ORCA on monorail: The City Council wants to explore options to add ORCA integration for the monorail. For riders, this could induce more usage as a real daily public transportation choice.

DC gets the good things: Arlington County, Virginia is exploring a sidewalk level cycletrack while the District of Columbia analyzes options with the Feds for a unique oval street to serve all modes and users.

The Streets Regard Ferguson


Picture 2


I try to avoid turning my stories into soapboxing opportunities, and for that reason they’re rarely topical in the “breaking news” sense, but I’m compelled to address an issue a number of people have been asking me, and which you may be curious about.

Because I drive the “black” bus, people want to know how people are reacting to the Ferguson decision. There aren’t any white people on the 7 during most of the hours I drive it; what’s the general angle of conversation on the subject, in this, the most educated city in the US?*

Heuristic evidence tells me the general angle is perhaps not the outrage that the media reportage of protests might wish us to think. The general angle I get is that of thoughtful consideration. Just about everyone I’ve listened to has been able to read past the headline and understand that the Grand Jury’s decision is in fact not a legal license to kill black people or a desecration of all that America is supposed to stand for–yes, those was my initial knee-jerk responses–but rather an acknowledgement of a complex situation with multiple ambiguities and moving parts.

While what look like bored clumps of white teenagers** wandering around outside in the street, “protesting,” blocking nothing at night except blue-collar folk wishing to go home, my passengers of color look on in either amusement or mild frustration. They turn to myself and each other and ponder the shooting. An ex-military man with experience in high-pressure situations noted that such circumstances have half-lives not of weeks or months, but of seconds. Death is larger than race, and you don’t think when you’re in situations like that. You react.

Then there is the question of conflicting testimonies. Did Mr. Brown turn around? Was he running forward? What about his friend, Mr. Johnson?

“Why you agreein’ wit’ the Man,” one man asked when the other mentioned these ambiguities.
“It ain’t about that. It’s about it’s more than meets the eye. Only people knows what happened, is Darren Wilson, and Michael Brown. Period end of story.”

Snatches overheard:

“And anotha thing. Police officers need to worry about whether oh not they gon’ make it home every night. You always gonna err on the side of protectin’ yo self. Are there kids out here who are dangerous? Uh, yeah! That don’t mean it ain’t no tragedy. But don’t tell me….”

A friend of mine, looking out the window: “What the fuck are these assholes doing? The Grand Jury has already made their decision. There ain’t no, fuckin, what I don’t understand is, where was all these people before motherfuckers made the announcement? Where was the protesters then? When it was back in the day, Martin Luther King and shit marchin’ on Washington, those motherfuckers was out there before, during, and after. These are just lazy sons a bitches blockin’ regular motherfuckers tryin’ to get they ass home. Iss the middle of the fuckin’ night. What these guys think they gon’ do? The Grand Jury gonna say, oh yeah, we’re sorry, we made a…. Yeah, it was a shitty decision, I agree. But I don’t think blockin’ a bus or a train in Seattle is gonna make the Grand Jury in Missouri… oh, man. It pisses me off so much.”

A woman on her way to St. Mark’s summed it up best: “They tryin’ uh get everybody to riot. But they ain’t goin’ to. That police officer was scared. This ain’t no Rodney King.”

Less mayhem, more thinking, breathing, and talking. Ah, yes. Boring for the news networks, and just fantastic for everyone else.
–*Regarding education levels in Seattle: read more from Fast CompanyThe Washington Post, Brookings Institution, and CNN.**Toward whom I sympathize with, mean no disrespect, and among whom I count several friends. I marched in the police brutality protests during the John Williams episode, but this is different. Plus, the ineffectual late-night aspect of the current protests encourages me to poke gentle fun.

Puget Sound ferry agencies see new vessels and service


It’s been a good year for several of the local ferry-running agencies. They’ve been blooming with the replacement of their fleets while also implementing and planning new service. Here’s a brief recap of what has happened over the summer and fall with a bit of background for context.

King County Ferry District (KCFD)

MV Spirit of Kingston
The MV Spirit of Kingston, the main vessel on the West Seattle-Downtown Seattle route. Photo by the author.

All-American Marine, a ferry builder based in Bellingham, has begun work on the construction of two passenger-only catamarans for KCFD. The new vessels will be able to carry 250 seated passengers indoors and 26 bicycles on deck. This is a significant increase from the current fleet, which consists of two boats: the MV Melissa Ann (serving the Seattle-Vashon route) and MV Spirit of Kingston (serving the Seattle-West Seattle route). The Melissa Ann can serve up to 172 passengers and 18 bicycles while the Spirit of Kingston has a capacity of up to 147 passengers and 16 bicycles.

The new vessels being built will be more efficient to operate due to wider doors for access and reduced fuel consumption. While no new sailings will be added with the introduction of the vessels to service, the boats will increase capacity per sailing. The Vashon run very often sails close to capacity, so increased capacity will hopefully lead to many fewer passengers being turned down for service.

Upon arrival of the new ferries in Fall 2015, the Melissa Ann will be returned to Four Seasons Marine (her owners) while the Spirit of Kingston will remain in County ownership. The new ferry to serve the Vashon run will be called Sally Fox, which is being named in honor of a late Vashon passenger-only ferry advocate. Meanwhile, the new West Seattle vessel will be called Doc Manyard, named after Seattle’s famed pioneer.

Washington State Ferries (WSF)

MV Tokitae
The MV Tokitae, sister of the new ferry Chimacum, entered service on the Mukilteo-Clinton route in late June. Photo by the author.

WSF is in the process of replacing their aging Evergreen State-class ferry fleet with new Olympic-class ferries. Three Evergreen State-class ferries have reached the ripe old age of 60, the end of their service lives. Evergreen State-class ferries have a capacity of 1,092 passengers and 87 vehicles. Of course, the Evergreen State-class ferries are dwarfed by the shiny new Olympic-class ferries, which have a capacity of up to 1,500 passengers and 144 vehicles.

Earlier this year, the MV Tokitae, a new Olympic-class ferry, entered service on the Mukilteo-Clinton route. Two more ships of this class are planned to be deployed over the next 3 years. The MV Samish is currently under construction by Vigor Industrial based out of Seattle. This new vessel is expected to enter service sometime in Spring 2015. The route for which the ferry will sail has not yet been revealed. However, it is assumed that both the Seattle-Bremerton route and San Juan Islands are candidates for this ferry. And just last month, WSF officially named the third new Olympic-class ferry as the MV Chimacum. The Chimacum will enter service in 2017.

Kitsap Transit

MV Carlisle II
Though more than a 100 years old (built in 1912), the Carlisle II still sails reliably for Kitsap Transit between Bremerton and Port Orchard. The small ferry is the oldest boat still operating under regular service from the Mosquito Fleet, and Kitsap Transit’s largest ferry. Photo by the author.

As we reported in July, Kitsap Transit is looking to provide passenger-only ferry service from Seattle to Kitsap County. Routes previously under consideration were Seattle-Southworth, Seattle-Bremerton, and Seattle-Kingston. Kitsap Transit has selected Seattle-Bremerton as the preferred route. The route between Seattle-Bremerton currently takes about an hour each way. However, a passenger-only ferry would greatly reduce the trip to 35 minutes each way.

Kitsap Transit is currently looking at alternatives for funding for the route and will redeploy the existing 118-passenger Rich Passage I. The ferry was built for Kitsap Transit and put into service for testing during Summer 2012. Potential riders of the new ferry route say that they want to be able to reserve their seats. Riders fear that the route would be so popular, reservations are the only way to make it competitive and reliable against the regular, but slower, WSF ferries.

Tweet of the Week: Mismatch in style and height is A okay


Equitable Building


Last week, yours truly was in New York City. Streetscapes like the one in the tweet below were very typical whether in Manhattan, the Bronx, or Brooklyn. And you know what? They worked. They were visually interesting spaces even if somewhat abrupt and unexpected. Buffy Sparks’s tweet however gets at the heart of a debate that’s been going on for nearly 100 years: height, bulk, and scale.

Structures like the Equitable Building (shown above) in Lower Manhattan were seen as shocking in the early 20th Century. People demanded that something be done to address the concerns for light and air. With the rapid densification of New York and buildings climbing to ever new heights, there were legitimate concerns that streets would simply become caverns of darkness and choked air. And so, zoning regulations were crafted to carry out these public desires in order to reduce the perceived impacts of height, bulk, and scale by requiring new buildings stepback upper floors. Today, these same desires persist widely–not just in New York City.

Stepbacked Buildings in Midtown Manhattan


The tall structure highlighted in the tweet below would not generally be permissible under New York City zoning codes now. Not because of its style per se, but rather due to its height and lack of upper floor stepbacks. As Buffy Sparks wisely notes, this building works within its context. It’s not choking out the air and doesn’t create a cavernous feel to the space. The space is still safe and it makes it interesting, despite being very different.

When people talk about building height, bulk, scale, and scale, it’s an aesthetic thing. Pinning down what is bad and good isn’t always clear. Even the most crowded and skyscraping places of Manhattan have something likable about them. Here in Seattle, it’s not uncommon to find starkly different building types in height, massing, and design on the same block. Perhaps we shouldn’t be afraid of that.