Bertha’s Future

Bertha being delivered (by the author)

Bertha, the massive highway tunnel boring machine, is stuck in one place underground until at least next March. The future of State Route 99 has moved firmly into uncharted territory, so I thought I’d start a discussion of what might happen next.

First, a recap.

After the 2001 Nisqually quake damaged the SR-99 viaduct, the state legislature started seriously considering funding for a replacement. In 2003, they passed the “Nickel” funding package, providing $177 million in funding to begin design work and start buying right of way. In 2005, once the general scope of the replacement became clear, the Transportation Partnership Program provided $2 billion toward construction.

In 2006, voters in Seattle were asked in an advisory vote to choose between a ‘cut and cover’ tunnel or a replacement elevated structure, and rejected both.

Even at that point, there was a surface boulevard option that put money into transit and downtown street grid improvements, much like San Francisco’s Embarcadero, and would have torn down the damaged viaduct immediately; nearly every party involved ignored that option, other than the project’s citizen advisory committee, which endorsed it.

Also in 2006, the state asked Sound Transit to delay their “Sound Transit 2” vote until 2007 to pair it with a regional highway expansion vote which would have included additional funding for the SR-99 project. Sound Transit did so, and in November, the “Roads and Transit” measure failed, preventing even more money from going to the project. Sound Transit went back to the ballot in 2008 and passed handily.

Finally, in 2009, the state proposed a bored tunnel–the largest in the world–to replace the freeway. They capped the total state spending on the project at $2.4 billion, and assigned responsibility to the city if the project went overbudget. A referendum on the city council’s agreement with the state failed in 2010, and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) started construction.

Since then, the expensive machine has broken, as predicted by many, while other highway infrastructure deteriorates, sometimes spectacularly, and maintenance remains underfunded across the state. The viaduct, touted after 2001 as dangerously unsafe, remains standing, despite a 2008 promise from then-governor Gregoire that it would be torn down in 2012.

The first failure in this project was that it went past the drawing board.

Great. Now what?

I’m going to gloss over the mess of Bertha’s failure: the machine’s bearings failed, causing it to overheat when it spun the cutting head. The contractor has a plan that they believe could get the machine digging by March of 2015. To do this, they’re digging a pit down to the front of the machine, planning to pull off the 57-foot wide cutting head, replace the bearings inside the machine, and make a whole host of improvements to try to keep the machine from breaking again.

First, and soonest, as they dig a pit in wet muck between Elliott Bay and the existing viaduct, they’re going to have to pump water out of it–what they call “dewatering”. When you pump water out of the ground, the ground tends to sink.


Sadly, this isn’t as fun as actually sending the viaduct to the bottom of the ocean. The viaduct is only considered safe to drive on (if you can consider it safe at all) as long as it doesn’t sink more than an inch, and at least one part of it sank 4/10 of an inch when tunneling began.

WSDOT never planned to dewater in the area where Bertha is stuck now, so it’s likely the viaduct will sink further. If it hits that full inch, it’ll have to be closed to traffic. At that point, we’ll see adaptation–traffic will worsen in the short term, transit use will spike, and the region will reach a new traffic equilibrium over a few weeks as people take other routes and change their habits.

It’s very likely that traffic Downtown would improve as a result of tens of thousands fewer cars. It’s entirely possible that once the viaduct is closed for a couple of months, we’d see political will to throw more money at a new freeway disappear–and maybe WSDOT could even sue the contractor for damages to cover the cost of a new surface boulevard and transit improvements.


If the viaduct stays afloat and repairs are completed successfully, we come to another potential point of failure. One theory for Bertha’s failure is that because of its size, the pressure against the bottom of the cutting head is much higher than the pressure against the top, torquing it against the bearings and causing them to wear quickly. I understand this is one of the points the repair is supposed to address, but as it’s being done by the same company that claimed the machine was fine in the first place, I don’t have high hopes.

If the bearings are damaged again, and the machine goes twice as far this time as it did the first time, it would end somewhere under Downtown–either under 1st Ave or an adjacent building. At that point, perhaps under the Four Seasons hotel or one of the buildings of Pike Place Market, a repair would have to be attempted from inside the tunnel; and be more costly and time-consuming than the current year-long repair plan.


On the legal front, a source close to the project tells me that WSDOT has rejected a “change order” from the contractor to increase the contract amount by the amount of the repairs, indicating that the state believes the contractor is responsible. If the contractor disagrees, they may stop work arbitrarily, or only work until they run out of money. At that point, WSDOT might have to sue the contractor to complete the project (or even the repairs).

This is only one of several ways the project could end up in court–and given the history of Ron Tutor of Tutor Perini, 45% of the “Seattle Tunnel Partners” joint venture, it seems likely.


While there are oodles of other ways this project can still die, there’s one more that I find particularly interesting.

This project came from former Governor Gregoire, then-state Senator Ed Murray, former mayor Greg Nickels, county executive Dow Constantine, and most of the current Seattle City Council. All of them are Democrats in a state with only a small Democratic majority. If the tunneling isn’t complete or cancelled by the beginning of the 2016 election season, I expect the Republicans to campaign against Governor Jay Inslee on the cost and Seattle focus of the project.

With that in mind, if I were Inslee, I would be looking for a way out, and I’m sure his team isn’t blind to this risk. If the viaduct sinks, the money runs out, or the machine fails again, I expect to see him and WSDOT pull the plug.

What can we do?

This project may not die, but if it can, the best things we can do to help it along are small.

First, tell every local elected official you meet that you want this tunnel dead, that you’ll vote against any highway money, and that you’ll donate to candidates who oppose highways and build transit and high speed rail instead.

Oppose highways every chance you get. There are a dozen more projects like this one in the pipelines of state departments of transportation across the country. A lot of them are stalling due to a convergence of the interests of anti-tax and pro-sustainability voters. People need to hear in casual conversation that highways are dangerous and unhealthy, a past mistake we must remove and correct.

Tell Seattle City Council candidates that you want them to oppose highways, full stop. When you find one that does, give them a check if you can, and go doorbell for them. If you live in the 6th, for instance, you’re all set.

Finally, be ready for the next legislative session. Come January, we’ll need to testify against highways and for transit. When you come to Olympia in-person, your voice carries.

Developer Fail: More Parking Than Apartment Units Isn’t TOD


MLK Site Layout

When Link opened in 2009, it was expected to be a catalyst for transit-oriented development (TOD) in the Rainier Valley: MLK Way is littered with the sort of auto-oriented, suburban-style development that defines placelessness, and is ripe for redevelopment. A unprecedented economic downturn delayed those aspirations somewhat, and for a long time The Station at Othello Park was the only example of TOD in the Valley–but things are looking up.

The Problem

MLK AerialThe Seattle Housing Authority has found a developer for its 3.2 acre site at the corner of MLK Way and Othello Street, right next to Sound Transit’s Othello Link Station. The plans are impressive: 505 market-rate apartments spread over three buildings, 17,800 sq. ft. of retail space, and a 10,000 sq. ft. of public plaza intended to provide space for a farmer’s market and community events. But the developer, Everett’s Path America, has fallen into the same trap many have when planning TOD by forgetting the “Transit” and focusing on the parking. Instead, Path America is proposing a whopping 523 surface and underground parking stalls for those 505 apartments.

It’s a serious and well known problem: A recent report from the Sightline Institute found that 21 of the 23 recent multifamily developments studied had more occupied units than occupied parking stalls, with an average overnight parking vacancy rate of 37%. Those empty stalls do more than waste space; they cost developers a lot of money, costs that ultimately get passed on to tenants:

…We estimate that the developments in our sample incurred losses on parking ranging from 6 percent to 42 percent of monthly apartment rents, or an average of money on parking. $246 per apartment per month. Assuming that landlords generally recover losses on parking through the rents they charge their tenants, an average of 15 percent of tenants’ rental payments in our sample cover the building’s losses on parking. In short, the tenants of the buildings in our sample—even those who didn’t park on-site—paid for on-site parking through their rent.

It’s exciting to see development in the Rainier Valley take off. Seattle needs more affordable housing, and converting low-density (or vacant) land uses to medium- and high-density housing is a great way to meet that need. Likewise, taking advantage of major regional investments in transit is critical for ensuring affordability by freeing tenants from the burdensome cost of owning and maintaining car. Considering such realities, it boggles the mind that a major developer is planning to put more parking stalls than actual apartment units next to three frequent transit lines (Central Link Light Rail and King County Metro Transit Routes 8 and 36) in one of the poorest parts of Seattle. Not only is it a wasted opportunity, but it denies affordable housing in an area that desperately needs it.

Take Action

The Southeast Design Review Board will be taking its first look at the proposed development (project notices #3017470 and #3017475) this Tuesday, August 26, from 6:30-8:00 pm at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center, giving advocates a chance to urge the developer to use a saner amount of parking.

Please make it to the meeting if you can. Public testimony is certainly the most effective way to commute your thoughts to the Design Review Board. Alternatively, you can contact the Department of Planning and Development directly at or the project planner, Bruce Rips, with your comments. If you choose to send an email, note the urgency of your comments and be assertive that they must be read out or referred to the Board on Tuesday by the project planner.

Pronto! Cycle Share Membership Starts Today


Pronto! Fall


Today’s the day that many of you have been waiting for. It’s your first opportunity to register as an annual member in Seattle’s new bicycle share program: Pronto! And as a gift to the first 600 people to register, you’ll receive a swanky keyfob (as seen below) and bragging rights as a Pronto! Founding Member. Who doesn’t want to be a Founding Member? Registration starts at noon sharp and costs $85 for one year. The service launch for Pronto! is scheduled mid-September for October 13.

Blue KeyfobMembership gives you 24/7 access to the Pronto! cycle sharing service for no additional cost. The system is easy to use with over 50 docking stations throughout Seattle’s most popular neighborhoods (see map of planned stations): Capitol Hill, Downtown, South Lake Union, Eastlake, and the University District.

As long as you return a checked out bike within a half hour of picking it up, you don’t pay anything more. By simply docking a bike to return it, you can immediately pick up another if your intended journey will actually take longer than a half hour. The idea of the system is short trips around town to keep the bikes circulating throughout the system.

Of course, if you’re not interested in being a member, that’s okay, too. Pronto! will have short-term pass options as well. For the very occasional rider, you can purchase 1-day or 3-day passes to access the system. Each docking station will have a kiosk to manage purchases and accounts. Using the system is no different for non-member ridres, except that a temporary pass is issued instead of the handy keyfobs. 1-day passes cost $8, 3-day passes cost $16.

If you do the math, the very occasional rider should probably consider a membership if they think they’ll use the system more than 10 days out of the year within the bikeable zone. Keep in mind, King County does maintain a helmet law, so you can bring your own helmet, rent one for $2 at the docking stations, or flaunt the law (not that we’re encouraging that–maybe).

Not convinced of cycle share yet? Tom over at the Seattle Bike Blog has a fantastic rundown on Pronto!’s standard bike. Last month, he was invited to take a test run on Seattle streets, and needless to say, he’s a true believer. For more information on Pronto! Cycle Share, visit their website or check out our original article on the topic.

UPDATE 1: Pronto! has two tiers of membership currently offered as seen below.

UPDATE 2: According to the Seattle Bike Blog, the launch will actually be October 13, not mid-September.

Sunday Video: Farewell to the Pianos


The pianos in the park were an awesome program, and it’s sad to see them go. But this is a great way to cherish them.

What We’re Reading: Park It, Walk It, Bike It, Transit

Downtown Seattle by Alex Green on Flickr.

Park it: The happiest commutes are active commutes, and the car loses the longer the commute while other modes barely budge over time. But surprise! Those who take transit (and walk or bike) are much healthier than their driving counterparts, cuz duh. The US is still a pretty deadly country for vehicular-related deaths, and progress to reduction has been abysmalSightline explores paid parking schemes at local transit centers and park and rides.

Walk it: Hopscotch in the CD is back again this year, today in fact until 6pm! Go hop the full two miles. NYC is rolling out some awesome wayfinding maps undergound to help folks when they go aboveground.

Bike it: The 2nd Avenue bike lanes are on their way, and significant progress has been made this week along Pike Street and 2nd Avenue. The bike lanes should be completed by September 8th. Copenhagenize gathers a bunch of bicycle signs and talks symbolism. An interesting way to put protected bike lanes in a roundabout. Implementation of the Bicycle Master Plan is behind schedule.

TransitGreater Greater Washington discusses train stations with side platforms in detail. Many European passenger railway companies should learn from budget airlines. People who live near transit are much happier than folks without it. For you nerds, there are water bottles out with your favorite transit network systems, including Seattle! La Paz’s “subway” is actually a gondola system. Building transit systems shouldn’t take longer than they did in 1925. A Virginia Railway Express transit-oriented development infill station is basically just new sprawl.

Design it: Seattle-based firm Callison Architecture has been bought by a Dutch firm, but don’t worry, they’ll stick around! Istanbul is so committed to the Haiga Sophia, it plans to demolition a series of new skyscrapers that are impeding those panoramic views. Not a bad Pioneer Square loft if you happen to have $650k laying around….Quaint little Oxford house with bicycle parking in mind. Modern offices go stacked like boxes in Roeselare, Belgium. 13 whimsical hotel designs to leave you scratching your head.

Change it: A four-day work week would be much better for us all, and we could still get just as much done. Most Seattle cops don’t live in Seattle (mine Seattle’s police data report). And Ferguson is a clear case of white power in a black townPerformance-based zoning is a superior avenue to controlling development over arcane zoning regulations. Piggy backing on this, Old Urbanist highlights how zoning went so wrong. As predicted, the developers lost their case on incentive zoning fees. Global instability may be making urban life tougher.

Make it: Mayor Murray details the implementation plan of the Metropolitan Park District in a press conference this week. PARK(ing) Day applications are due in just under a week. An update on the implementation of the parklet program. Maintaining all the landscaped right-of-ways in Seattle is a challenge, mostly because it’s a math problem, but they still get it done. The annual Bridging the Gap report is out, and it’s not too long of a read.

Map it: We’re in the 21st Century and that means we have much better technological resources, and mapping is beginning to standardize in new and better ways. An awesome map showing migration patterns for every state overlaid on the states. A better map for the DC Metro system.

Broadway Streetcar Extension Curtailed to Roy Street


For the past few years, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has been working on a plan to extend the First Hill Streetcar northward. Terminus options explored were to Roy Street, Aloha Street, and Prospect Street (near Volunteer Park). Earlier in the process, the Aloha option had been eliminated. However, an extension toward Volunteer Park was always a long-shot. SDOT consistently referred to the project as the “Broadway Extension” and often indicated relative doubt of an extension beyond Roy Street.

This week, we learned for certain that the First Hill Streetcar extension had been curtailed to Roy Street. Cost and benefit were the primary cited reasons for cutting the project scope down. With the current decision, an extension beyond Roy seems unlikely for the foreseeable future. But SDOT has indicated that an extension on 10th Avenue is possible. Conceivably, with a larger streetcar program, expansion far beyond Prospect would make the investment much more palatable.

For a comparison of the previous Prospect Street terminus and the now official Roy Street terminus preferred alternative, see the street configurations below.

While the streetcar extension beyond Roy Street is indeed an unfortunate casualty, it’s not the only one. The Broadway Bikeway (cycle track) is inexorably linked to the streetcar improvements. SDOT plans to extend the cycle track just beyond the Roy Street streetcar terminus. The cycle track will terminate at the intersection of Aloha Street and 10th Avenue, which is a managed intersection.

The good news here is that the cycle track will remain a cycle track the whole length as opposed to cycle lanes on both sides of 10th Avenue. So while this may be a disappointing outcome for streetcar supporters, it could be an even better outcome for cycle track supporters in the mid-term. Cycle track supporters eventually want to push the cycle track all the way to Roanoke Street (as detailed in my previous article). The Prospect Street streetcar terminus option not only split the cycle track in two, but this design precluded the ability to later realign to a two-lane cycle track if such a project was taken up as part of the Seattle Bicycle Master Plan.

It is also important to note that the Roy Street terminus design does not specifically preclude the possibility of extending the streetcar further down 10th Avenue or a bike couplet of 10th Avenue and another parallel street at a future date, should funding and the desire to extend the line arise.

3 Ways to Improve the Onboard Metro Customer Experience


A few simple onboard improvements to King County Metro buses could truly enhance the customer experience and increase their overall efficiency. Outfitting new and existing buses with the following feature enhancements would provide passengers more space, expedite the boarding and deboarding process, speed up overall bus service, reduce fuel consumption, and save service hours.

3 Ways to Make Improvements

Sound Transit Overhead Storage
Overhead storage areas on Sound Transit by Oran Viriyincy.

1. Overhead baggage storage. Bags blocking the aisles or placed on otherwise usable seats—it happens all the time. Space is necessarily limited on buses, especially in a city where many passengers carry backpacks, purses, and groceries during their daily commute. Many Metro passengers also use transit as a primary mode for leisure travel across the region or connecting services to travel outside of the Puget Sound region. Needless to say, it’s unsurprising to see large suitcases and luggage on a normal bus trip.

Metro would be wise to deploy overhead baggage storage on all buses. Doing so would achieve greater capacity by reducing aisle blockage and seats filled with bags. Instead, more passengers could sit or stand aboard buses. Fewer obstacles in the aisles would reduce delays. Reasonably, fewer bags should be blocking aisles and passengers should become more mobile by “taking a load off.” This simple onboard feature also enhances passengers’ well-being and personal comfort.

Most of Sound Transit’s new fleet of New Flyer (and old Gilligs) buses are outfitted with overhead baggage storage—a great local example of how to implement storage racks without affecting aisle standing areas or passengers seated below.

Translink Rear Door
Touch-responsive rear door exiting on Translink by Oran Viriyincy.

2. Touch-responsive rear door sensors for exiting. “BACK DOOR!” A fellow passenger screams out to the driver—often to no avail—that they want to alight from the bus. Bus systems all over the United States have rear door technology that allows passengers to press their hands on the doors to exit (or some similar feature). Typically, a light or indicator becomes lit when the bus has come to a complete stop and the door is operable by pushing or touching it.

Implementing a touch-responsive rear door system would add convenience and a sense of freedom for passengers. There’s nothing worse than feeling trapped at the rear of the bus, and shouts of “back door” can be a nerve-racking and frustrating experience for any passenger. Not only would this feature save fellow passengers from the disturbing shouts to exit, but it would allow bus operators to focus their attention on other customer service duties toward the front of the vehicle. Pierce Transit is leading the way locally and has implemented the technology on all new buses.

Rear door Compass card reader on Translink by Steve Chou on Flickr.

3. Rear door boarding with ORCA readers. Passengers should not be limited only to front-door entry. By deploying ORCA readers, passengers could freely enter both front and rear doors. The key benefits are multiple entry options for riders, a faster boarding process, and drastically reduced bus dwell times. For instance, there are many times where a bus has to board or deboard a handicapped individual, a time consumptive process (even if there is passive restraint). Instead of all passengers waiting to board, they could simply board through an alternative door.

Metro mothballed rear door entry (if you discount the old Free Ride days) a few years ago because of implementation costs. ORCA readers don’t come cheap, and lack of a network-wide Proof of Payment (POP) system on regular bus routes poses a hurdle to implementation. Neither of these is insurmountable, but a cash-strapped Metro makes this a challenge for now. It is worth noting that RapidRide has been outfitted with POP. Fare enforcement officers are tasked with boarding buses to ensure that passengers have paid their fare.


The first two customer experience enhancements seem like fairly achievable goals. Overhead baggage storage racks aren’t cost prohibitive given that bus interiors are fairly flexible. Not every existing model is completely adaptable, but most of the recent buses types that Metro has acquired are. And, given that Metro has gone with New Flyer for essentially all new buses, the overhead baggage rack is a cheap and simple add-on. Touch-responsive rear door sensors for exiting is a bit more challenging. Depending upon bus type, this could be an easy retrofit (although not inexpensive) or a challenging one that requires significant new wiring and computer technology. Meanwhile, rear door boarding would require a policy change to allow rear door entry, significant capital expenditure to implement, and a more robust POP fare enforcement system. On the whole, though, each of these improvements would greatly improve the customer experience through faster buses, more space and comfort, and quicker boarding and deboarding.

Seattle/King County: 3rd Largest Homeless Population In 2013 HUD Report


(There’s a lot of data in the 2013 HUD report on homelessness. This is part 1 of The Urbanist’s series to better understand this data. You can see Part 2 here.)

Courtesy of HUD

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does a yearly analysis of homelessness in the US and released their research for 2013 in August. This report is largely based on a single night count of homelessness among participating Continuum of Care (CoC) organizations, local planning organizations that manage all aspects of homelessness from providing shelter to providing permanent housing. The federal government provides most of the funding for homeless services in the country and ties the use of that money to guidelines regarding those services. Among these guidelines are requirements regarding the structure and responsibilities of local organizations that want to be eligible for funds and these organizations are referred to as CoCs. In Seattle, there is a coordination of resources and organizations, referred to as the Seattle/King County CoC. (I will be publishing a series of posts about the data found in this report, focusing on the Seattle/King County CoC.)

To get a handle on the makeup and number of people experiencing homelessness, HUD attempts to collect accurate information on the entire homeless population without counting anyone twice. Data collection mostly depends on a ‘single night count.’ Organizations responsible for solving homelessness conduct a count of the population within their jurisdiction on a single night each year. The count usually takes place at the end of January, and the results from Seattle were widely published this year. This method isn’t perfect—it relies heavily on volunteers and possibly misses variations in homelessness during the year—but it is the best data available for understanding homelessness in the United States.

Courtesy of Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness

Important Findings

The scale and details of the homeless problem in the US can be very discouraging, but there are also reasons for hope. Some of the particularly stark findings from this year’s report include:

  • There are 610,042 homeless people in the US.
  • Nearly 35% were unsheltered. Unsheltered areas are defined as a location not ordinarily used for sleeping and can include ‘temporary shelters’ such as a car or abandoned building, but also areas such as tent cities.
  • 23% of all homeless people were under the age of 18.

While Seattle saw an increase in homelessness between 2013 and 2014, the region was growing. Additionally, there is good news on the federal level regarding homelessness:

  • Chronic homelessness of individuals decreased 7% since 2012 and 25% since 2007.
  • Homelessness among veterans declined 24% between 2009 and 2013.
  • Since 2007 there has been a 23% decline in unsheltered homelessness.
  • Those in shelters has increased 1% since 2007.
  • Homelessness overall declined 9% since 2007.
  • 61,846 fewer people are homeless since 2007.

Federal Homelessness Goals

The federal government has four primary goals regarding homelessness:

  • End chronic homelessness by 2015, defined as continuous homelessness for at least one year or four episodes of homelessness in the last three years.
  • End homelessness for veterans by 2015.
  • End homelessness for youth and families by 2020.
  • Make progress towards ending all homeless.

It’s not clear to me whether the federal goals are on track to be successful. The report notes that the progress towards ending homelessness of youth and families has seen small declines, suggesting that the goal is not on track. Additionally, the report’s stated goal of providing a “path” toward ending homelessness is not clear enough to understand what progress towards that goal might look like beyond a declining rate of homelessness.

Seattle and Washington

Some of the notable data from 2013 in Washington State includes:

  • 17,760 homeless people in 2013.
  • 4th largest decline in homelessness between 2007 and 2013, 5,619 (24%).
  • 3rd largest absolute decline in homeless families between 2012 and 2013: -2,088 (-22.6%); and the 4th largest between 2007 and 2013: -2,947 (-29.2%).
  • 2,196 chronically homeless people.
  • 1,136 unaccompanied homeless children and youth.

All the data for Seattle is a combination of Seattle and King County since there is a coordinated effort in this region. Some of the notable data in 2013 from the Seattle/King County CoC includes:

  • 3rd most homeless people (9,106) among participating CoCs.
  • 6th most homeless people in families (3,120) among participating CoCs.
  • 7th largest number (5,986) of homeless individuals among participating CoCs.
  • 7th largest number (533) of unaccompanied, homeless children and youth among participating CoCs.
  • 9th largest number (682) of homeless veterans among participating CoCs.
Courtesy of HUD

In future posts, I’ll expand further on the data for the Seattle/King County CoC since the national report does not discuss these numbers in detail.