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New city transportation head: Can he match the city's goals with its resources?

We often plan our transportation future as if cost were no object.
A Sound Transit train in the downtown tunnel: Just a taste of what's to come?

A Sound Transit train in the downtown tunnel: Just a taste of what's to come? Atomic Taco/Flicker (CC)

Magnolia Bridge supports: not enough for the long term.

Magnolia Bridge supports: not enough for the long term. Dick Nelson

Mayor Ed Murray's pick to lead Seattle Department of Transportation would seem to be a good one. Scott Kubly brings a record of achievement in several areas that Seattle needs to address, including bicycle and pedestrian mobility.

And Kubly, who had his initial confirmation hearing before the City Council on Tuesday, obviously shares the mayor’s belief that Seattle can’t go it alone, that major transportation investments must be made in a regional context, and that the various modes must be effectively integrated.

However, Kubly made several promises that he may find difficult to deliver on. At the press conference where the mayor introduced him, Kubly promised to “invest in a transportation system that will offer choices — more choices.” If he follows through with that pledge, he will have his hands full of options —but not the resources needed to deliver on the many choices already under consideration.

The issue of affording what Seattle wants to achieve will be a major one for the city. And we can see the challenge if we look at some of the costs Seattle faces maintaining its existing transportation systems and the way Seattle is planning to make transportation improvements, including for the north end of town, where I happen to live.

When the council confirms his appointment as early as next month, Kubly will inherit from the previous administration a $1 billion portfolio of proposed enhancements to the city’s transit system plus another $1 billion for pedestrian and bicycle improvements.  All were promoted without due regard for cost and funding sources.

And the list of choices continues to grow. Several new high-capacity transportation corridors in the city are under consideration by Sound Transit as it updates its long-range plan. Kubly will also have to address proposals by a very active transit constituency — citizen activists encouraged by former Mayor McGinn’s enthusiasm for all things that roll on steel wheels. Some think we need a region-wide subway system. Others would like to resurrect the monorail. 

These many expensive improvements are overshadowed by a large transportation funding backlog: a long list of street and bridge maintenance projects that accumulated over several administrations with a cost totaling about $2 billion. Replacement of the Magnolia Bridge, which was patched up after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, will alone require $350 million.

The backlog has grown substantially since 2006 when city voters passed the nine-year Bridging the Gap property tax levy. City transportation officials admit that the $365 million levy was insufficient to keep up with increasing maintenance and repair needs.

And pothole filling, as Kubly also promised, will not be sufficient to address the pavement repair problem. When maintenance of a transportation asset is deferred past a certain point, it may require major repair or even replacement at a significantly higher cost. SDOT has illustrated this with a graphic for street pavement that indicates there is a “tipping point” beyond which deterioration and costs accelerate rapidly. 

The city’s transportation asset accounting system rates roads and bridges' conditions as good, fair, or poor. Good means the asset is essentially “as new” or requires only routine maintenance. If an asset’s condition is considered fair, it requires major rehabilitation. Assets rated as poor are candidates for replacement. As of 2011, about half of the city’s transportation assets were either poor (22 percent) or fair (23 percent). 

Major improvements in the transportation planning process are long overdue, and a change of leadership is a good time for a thorough review. At the top of the list is the need to reconsider the incremental, corridor-by-corridor approach that inevitably leads to choices that, when added together, become unaffordable. Even the preferred choice in one corridor may be beyond our means. And it has a way of distracting planners from considering more immediate and cost-effective solutions to mobility and accessibility problems.

Consider the North Seattle to Downtown travel corridor. It was first identified as a candidate for enhancement in November 2008 when regional voters approved Sound Transit 2, which funded extensions of the regional light rail system to Lynnwood, Overlake/Bellevue, and south of Sea-Tac Airport. The ST2 measure also provided monies for a series of high-capacity transit planning studies .


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Aug 15, 6:43 a.m. Inappropriate

Nice article. The present day focus on fixed rails whether it is light rail, street cars or monorails is remarkably backward looking - we are trying to apply 19th transportation ideas, about 100 years too late. Driverless vehicles are going to be a reality well before Sound Transit can get anywhere close to building a useful light rail network even if we could afford it. Driverless vehicles will dramatically increase the carrying capacity of our roads, take people from where they are to were they want to go by the most efficient route, and eliminate the need for huge parking facilities next to the most popular venues especially if vehicles are shared. There has been a lot of thought about how this will impact private individuals (encourage more to undertake long commutes) but what about the impacts on public transportation?

WSDW

Posted Fri, Aug 15, 7:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Yep. It'll be another 9 years before ST2 is built out and, if approved in 2016, another 20 years before ST3 is built out. Well after 2030.

We're in 1925 building new massive Grand Central Stations and new transoceanic passenger ship terminals without thinking about what'll happen when those new fangled airplanes start carrying passengers.

talisker

Posted Fri, Aug 15, 12:52 p.m. Inappropriate

What's the 2025 equivalent of "new fangled airplanes"?

And BTW, have you been to Grand Central lately? It's packed with users.

louploup

Posted Fri, Aug 15, 1:45 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes a cluster of "driverless" vehicles will take up less space than the current pile of single occupant vehicles. But.. not as little space as better bicycling routes, and mass transit like Light Rail where people are willing to stand much closer together for their commute. Perhaps adding "driverless" to the Link Light Rail trains will permit them to travel closer together as well.

GaryP

Posted Fri, Aug 15, 1:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Autonomous cars.

talisker

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 8:44 a.m. Inappropriate

This is why even autonomous cars will not solve the traffic problem.

http://www.treehugger.com/cars/amount-of-space-required-to-transport-people-by-car-bus-or-bicycle.html

GaryP

Posted Fri, Aug 15, 7:40 a.m. Inappropriate

SDOT needs to spend the money they currently have more effectively.

When the 125th bike lane project was proposed, I assumed that it was going to be part of the repaving of 125th between Lake City Way and I-5 that was already in SDOTs long term arterial repaving schedule. After all, it was only two years away and surely they wouldn't spend a lot of money rechannelizing the street only to tear it all up and do it again in a year or two. But that is exactly what they did. Instead of doing everything at once, they pushed through the rechannelization and then a year or two later they were tearing out the old pavement and laying down new. And as part of the rechannelization they had just repaved some of the curb lane areas heavily used by buses.

It was a colossal waste of money, and caused two sets of disruptions to a busy street instead of just doing everything at once. Why was there such a rush to put in the cycle lanes? Why couldn't they just wait until the street was being repaved and restriped anyway?

SDOT also repaved a section of street that had already been slated to be torn up for the First Hill trolley stop at Swedish a year before it was closed.

There seems to be little coordination between projects, no single person or group that looks at how we're spending money and what the long term plan for the city or even a particular street is.

And over the past couple of years when there is an unexpected tax windfall they excitedly announce that they are going to use the money for another road diet or other capital project instead of using it to shore up our failing infrastructure or to repair the streets and bridges that we already have.

If we are smarter about combining projects and spending money more efficiently then we'll have more money for repairs and maintenance

talisker

Posted Fri, Aug 15, 9 a.m. Inappropriate

Another example for your list of projects that have money thrown at them for apparently political reasons instead of pragmatic ones is the DBT.

"A good starting point would be to embrace the least-cost approach to regional transportation planning as outlined in state law. Largely ignored by Puget Sound planners and policy makers, the methodology suggests that the most cost-effective solution to addressing travel demand may not involve capital construction. All reasonable approaches, such as vanpools and subsidized transit passes, should be considered along with transit corridor improvements."

Too bad the state government and the City didn't follow state law when signing on to the SR99 DBT.

Ints

Posted Fri, Aug 15, 11:06 a.m. Inappropriate

The city seems to have adopted a formula of postponing maintenance when they want more public votes in favor of various forms of taxpayer funding. Worked for funding the Library for example. Voters seem willing to vote yes on anything they think will reduce the bottleneck of Seattle traffic. Yet what have they got for all the money spent? Is Rapid Ride really worth 28 million$? What about the SLU streetcar? The waterfront tunnel without downtown exits. What I'm beginning to believe is happening is the intentional strangling of Seattle traffic so as to force increased ridership on existing seemingly failed mass transit projects.To me it really looks like downtown Seattle is at risk of failing as a community center. The future of downtown could simply be tourists and subsidized poor with smattering of the rich in their condos stirred by office workers seeking lunch. A have and have-not downtown.

chapala21

Posted Sat, Aug 16, 7:21 p.m. Inappropriate

You're absolutely correct, and I think this is happening and will continue to happen. After the parks vote, it's clear that this city's voters are putty in the hands of the "progressives."

If I were one of the "progressives," I'd be laughing my ass off at the stupidity of the people who vote here. In a collective sense, we deserve the mess we're getting. No politician should ever respect an electorate as stupid as this one, and frankly, they don't. We voted for it, and we keep on doing it.

NotFan

Posted Fri, Aug 15, 11:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Our electeds wasted $2 Billion and counting on a SR99 tunnel that moves LESS traffic, and countless dollars on "fixing" the Mercer Mess to make commute times longer, amongst other big spends.

Yet voters keep re-electing them. So, why exactly should we expect anything to change? Enjoy sitting in traffic.

Mickymse

Posted Fri, Aug 15, 1:41 p.m. Inappropriate

Actually, I'm generally enjoying bicycling around the traffic. The more it's blocked and not moving the safer the bike ride is.

But yeah, the Mercer Mess is still a mess. Looks pretty with medians and sidewalks and on street parking, but still a mess. It won't get "fixed" until there is better mass transportation to and from the Seattle Center/Queen Anne and points directly East & North.

GaryP

Posted Fri, Aug 15, 2:06 p.m. Inappropriate

And until you can get people from their houses to transit and transit to their destination in less time and at less expense than a privately owned car. Mass transit is great in some cases, but not for the family with an infant, toddler and grandma coming to town from Monroe to go to the Science Center.

talisker

Posted Sat, Aug 16, 7:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Exactly. It's this piece that all the transit loving folks ignore. There are not enough hours in the day for working people with families to do everything they need to do by bus or train, even if the buses and trains actually are accessible to them and travel to where they need to go.

mspat

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 8:48 a.m. Inappropriate

It's possible to do more on a bicycle than one would think at first glance.

http://www.streetfilms.org/groningen-the-worlds-cycling-city/

The thing is, if those who "could" ride, did, then there would be room on the roads for those who "have" to drive.

GaryP

Posted Fri, Aug 15, 4:15 p.m. Inappropriate

Yep sitting in traffic, or standing on a too-full bus and hanging onto the overhead railing, while being crushed by vermin looking to try to get inside your pockets to grab a wallet or credit card. They aren't even sly anymore.

Nice not to be living in Seattle any longer. The Mercer Mess is worse than ever before, and the young geeks all dressed in black or dark blue walking nose down looking at their smart devices but not at the impatient drivers all around them.

I feel great pity for the young women of today. Do they think these young guys are hot dating material?

Posted Fri, Aug 15, 4:16 p.m. Inappropriate

Our elected are a pathetic mirror of our own voter apathy.

Posted Fri, Aug 15, 2:49 p.m. Inappropriate

SDOT has an overhead rate that is greater than 200%. The city could reduce that for starters. It also has no plan in place for managing its current assets. It's not enough to think about what we want in the future; SDOT needs to make a plan for managing the city's existing assets. Each time the city decides to go forward with the installation of a new asset, it needs to include a plan for maintaining and replacing that asset, and state clearly how the city would fund it. The city never has done this.

Posted Fri, Aug 15, 4:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Modest Proposal:

http://www.newgeography.com/content/004466-why-do-we-care-about-transportation-mode-share

"if what we’re trying to accomplish is giving everyone a level of service where transit is a viable option,... then why not just measure that directly? Why not have widely-disseminated statistics about the percentage of people in every metropolitan region who can walk to a transit stop? Or make a bigger deal about the number of people who can reach some given percentage of metro area jobs via transit in a reasonable time frame?"

http://danielkayhertz.com/2013/10/22/is-inequality-the-purview-of-city-government/

"The average American, willing to travel up to 90 minutes each way on public transit, can only reach 30% of all jobs in their metropolitan area. That’s a disaster if you need a job and can’t afford a car."

afreeman

Posted Fri, Aug 15, 8:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Great thought provoking article from Dick Nelson. Seattle activists seem to want more and more and more. Funding be damned. The Seattle Subway proposal seems to be the most egregious offender. No ridership studies and no concern for costs. The fact is that Queen Anne, Fremont and Ballard aren't really that dense. So a station on Queen Anne isn't going to capture but a small fraction of residents. I think even if EVERY resident of Queen Anne withing 1/4 mile used the station, the ridership wouldn't be all that impressive.

All of these ideas simply serve to confuse the public and crowd out the media coverage from more important but mundane topics like street resurfacing.

But Mr. Nelson should keep in mind that the Seattle Subway and the Monorail are just concepts at this point. There is no budget impact.

Posted Sat, Aug 16, 8:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Dr. Frankenstein appears to have some second thoughts about the monster he created:

“A good starting point would be to embrace the least-cost approach to regional transportation planning as outlined in state law. Largely ignored by Puget Sound planners and policy makers, the methodology suggests that the most cost-effective solution to addressing travel demand may not involve capital construction.”

Sound Transit's unaccountable board always opts for decades of heavy regressive taxes to secure a mountain of new long term bonds to finance its capital expenses. That results in scores of billions of dollars of excessive taxing designed to cause the greatest financial impacts on the households with the least economic means. The “least-cost approach” be damned!

Light rail is dirt cheap for the people in communities it serves elsewhere. That's because federal grants, reallocation of existing revenue streams, debt secured by future farebox revenues, and progressive taxing targeting the primary beneficiaries of transit (businesses) are employed. NONE of those reasonable financing tools are used by Sound Transit.

The reason the political appointees on that that municipal board behave like sociopaths when it comes to the financing plan they design and set in to place after the vote is because they are unaccountable to the voting public. Read about the Stanford Prison Experiment – it's a function of unchecked power and the darkest side of human nature.

This brings me to Dr. Frankenstein, who authored this piece. Hey Dick Nelson: you were a sponsor of Sound Transit's enabling legislation bill when you were a state representative in 1992. What the hell were you guys thinking? There's a longstanding US Supreme Court opinion from 1967 known colloquially as “Sailors”. It says state legislatures are prohibited from delegating legislative governmental powers to appointive boards. That's exactly what you did when you adopted Sound Transit's authorizing statutes.

Were you guys deliberately ignoring that limit on the state legislature's powers? Presumably you knew it was unlike any municipality that existed in the United States, and you certainly were aware old-Metro had been struck down as unconstitutional because it violated the rights of people here as voters two years earlier.

Were you mislead? I suppose the private-firm bond counsel lawyers Jim Ellis and Gerry Johnson could have told you the draft proposed enabling legislation they were handing you complied with what the federal constitution demanded.

You and your colleagues created a monster. If you could shed some light on how that came about it would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

crossrip

Posted Sat, Aug 16, 11:09 a.m. Inappropriate

"Sociopaths and Standford prison". ...........that may be the first time that phrase was used in a discussion of public transportation.

Who now, is getting hysterical?

Treker

Posted Sat, Aug 16, 12:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Crossrip makes a good point in reminding that state law mandates cost-effective approaches to transportation. If that concept were followed there would be no light rail, no streetcars, no Big Bertha and tunnel, no Mercer Project, certainly no monorail (beyond the tourist attraction going to Seattle Center). We would look to repair and maintenance of existing bridges, roads and highways and the expansion of local bus service, which continues to deteriorate.

Ordinary taxpayers finance expensive transportation projects with regressive taxes. Ordinary workaday people must depend on them, even though they may not take them efficiently and inexpensively to their destinations. We're bogged down in huge capital projects conceived and backed by interest groups which profit from them and accepted by pliable public officials who readily bend to their will.

As others have mentioned, we badly need local voters (and, of course, elected officials) with critical faculties who will look closely at transportation priorities and be heard on them. Seattle has become too much a tourist Theme Park where lifestyle and leisure trump the interests of working taxpayers. This results in greater flight to suburbs by all but the rich who can afford to live here and the poor who lack the means to leave. Not the Seattle most of us want.

Posted Sat, Aug 16, 7:25 p.m. Inappropriate

It's hopeless. Voters here will approve just about anything. Every now and then there'll be a hiccup, such as when McGinn failed to raise car tabs and King Copunty rejected the bus bailout. But those are flukes. The average voter here is a sleep walker, and that won't change.

The best way to plan is to plan on the stupidity and gullibility of the Seattle voter.

NotFan

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 10:29 p.m. Inappropriate

Ted. The whole 'least cost' mantra is such nonsense. It's been a talking point of transit opponents for over a decade. Let's take your 'least cost' buses for example. The more expensive buses that are used for Bus Rapid Transit would be precluded by your logic because the plain old buses are least cost.

And what about having air conditioned buses vs. non-air conditioned buses? According to your 'least cost' mantra, buses should be sans air conditioning right?

When you say 'least cost', you get something that no one is going to even want to use.

Posted Sat, Aug 16, 3:22 p.m. Inappropriate

@ Ted_Van_Dyk

"Crossrip makes a good point in reminding that state law mandates cost-effective approaches to transportation. If that concept were followed there would be no light rail, no streetcars, no Big Bertha and tunnel, no Mercer Project, certainly no monorail (beyond the tourist attraction going to Seattle Center). We would look to repair and maintenance of existing bridges, roads and highways and the expansion of local bus service, which continues to deteriorate."

Which brings up a host of other questions, along with explaining the parameters of 'cost effectiveness', and how you convince voters to pony up the coin.

Repair of the highways is definitely at the top of the list.

JimCusick

Posted Sat, Aug 16, 4:48 p.m. Inappropriate

While I agree that Option D from the Ballard to Downtown study is a gold plated option, public response to the Ballard to downtown study highlighted building the highest quality line possible as their number 1 goal. They preferred Options D to the tune of 76% (with 4 other options to pick from.)

High quality means speed and its important not to be myopic. Its not just about the speed from Ballard to Downtown. That section will just be part of a much larger network. Speed matters very much when it comes to transit -- your suggestion that it doesn't because people have cell phones is completely off base. I'm left wondering if you actually ride transit, I can't imagine a rider ever saying something like that.

Seattle is wildly pro-transit. We passed Metro Prop 1 (which had fleas to be sure) in the high sixties and ST2 passed here with similar numbers but a much larger voter turnout. There is no reason to think that a new system vote that has actually solves mobility issues (such grade separated rail as Ballard/DT, Ballard/UW, DT/WS)would do anything here but pass by a mile. The biggest issue I see with the current ST planning for ST3 is poor options for eastside voters to get excited about (so far.)

An at grade street car is not a subway. Comparing prices on the most expensive option of a subway line to a potential streetcar line only shows how little you understand about the difference. I invite you to ride transit in the Ballard to UW and Ballard to DT corridors and then to re-write this article imagining the difference between a solution that increases efficiency and capacity but not speed or reliability (streetcar) and one that is very fast and reliable (grade separated subway.)

KeithKyle

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 1:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Streetcar systems can be done with grade separation. It's a matter of political will.

louploup

Posted Sat, Aug 16, 7:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattle "transportation" planning consists of escalating the local government's war on cars, while forcing drivers to fund that war. It's what the "progressives" do here.

NotFan

Posted Sat, Aug 16, 8:51 p.m. Inappropriate

If a good road expansion plan was proposed, how do you know the voters wouldn't go for it?

JimCusick

Posted Sun, Aug 17, 12:51 a.m. Inappropriate

The voters in Seattle are stupid enough to approve almost every tax increase put in front of them.

NotFan

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 11:05 a.m. Inappropriate

Replying to

It's possible to do more on a bicycle than one would think at first glance.

http://www.streetfilms.org/groningen-the-worlds-cycling-city/

The thing is, if those who "could" ride, did, then there would be room on the roads for those who "have" to drive.

— GaryP

How does one carry children safely on a bicycle when taking them to school, sports activities, to the grocery store? And how does a bicyclist carrying two or three kids on a bicycle, if there is a way, get them and the groceries back home? How do grandma and grandpa get carried to doctor appts by bicycle? Please!

mspat

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 1:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Mine are grown up and can ride themselves.

http://totcycle.com/blog/how-we-ride-now.html

and here: http://www.seattleschild.com/article/family-biking

for some locals leading the way.

http://bikes-as-transportation.com/why-i-invented-an-electric-bike-for-carrying-adult-passengers/

for carrying passengers, like Grandma.

I don't claim that a car replaces ALL trips, just that many trips could be replaced with a car, and that if those of us who CAN ride a bike for the trip, DID, that the current road capacity would exceed the need.

GaryP

Posted Sun, Aug 24, 9:28 a.m. Inappropriate

Well, I can agree with this statement. However, the sad fact appears to be that despite the funds and labor that are creating bicycle amenities pretty much everywhere I travel, people are not replacing their car trips with bike trips to any appreciable extent. I don't know if you believe that magic point of sufficient bicycle amenities has been reached yet, or if not, when you think it will be, but at the moment, even in this gorgeous summer we're having the bike lanes are much emptier, and the car traffic is much more congested, than I would expect from all the folks who feel, like you, that if more people used bikes, the road capacity would exceed the need. So far not happening. When is that day coming?

mspat

Posted Mon, Aug 25, 9:38 a.m. Inappropriate

Portland has reached a near tipping point at 7%. Seattle is on it's way with 4% and rising year over year. You can see it at the Freemont bridge crossing counter.

http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/bikecounter_fremont.htm

GaryP

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