Tuesday, February 13, 2007

WSDOT: Drop the Tunnel Lite

Breaking news:

Seattle's proposal for a reduced, four-lane Alaskan Way tunnel should be dropped from further consideration, because of "serious operational and safety problems found during our technical review," the State Department of Transportation said in a letter released this morning.
Hmm... Would that be the four-lane tunnel that Seattle voters will be voting on with the upcoming "advisory ballot"? Yes, indeed it would be:
Next week, advisory ballots will be mailed to Seattle voters, who are being asked to choose a four-lane tunnel, or a six-lane elevated structure. Final decisions rest with the state, where some officials have called the advisory measure flawed, or even meaningless.
I'll say. If the state says "this idea will never work," then it really doesn't matter if the city (for some reason) chooses that idea anyway, now does it?

(Mike Lindblom, Seattle Times, 02.13.2007)

Friday, February 02, 2007


Oh, snap.

A new express bus ramp above Interstate 405 in Kirkland has cracked because of a design blunder, so it will need to be partly rebuilt at a cost of $2 million to $3 million.
The roadway cracked lengthwise where a wide concrete slab hangs partly over the freeway in what the DOT says is an innovative cantilevered design.

Like an overloaded teeter-totter, the slab cracked down the center and sagged an inch at one of its far ends...
"Innovative..." Heh.

(Mike Lindblom, Seattle Times, 02.02.2007)

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

$10 To Cross 520?

I hardly ever drive over the SR-520 bridge as it is, but although I support the concept of tolls, I'm pretty sure I would just drive around the lake if this plan gets put in place:

Tolls to finance a new six-lane floating bridge across Lake Washington could be nearly $10 when the proposed replacement along State Route 520 is opened in 2015, a legislative committee has been told.

Financing and cost estimates for replacing the overcrowded and aging Evergreen Point floating bridge between Seattle and the suburbs east of the lake were presented Monday at a House Transportation Committee hearing.

In the most optimistic outlook with tolls to finance construction, the round-trip charge for motorists would range from $5.66 to $8.13 in today's dollars and $6.90 to $9.90 when traffic begins flowing over the new span in 2015, lawmakers were told.

The low end assumes that the same toll would be levied on Interstate 90 across the Mercer Island floating bridge and that money borrowed for a new span would be paid back over 40 years.
Yowza. $10 to cross the lake? No thank you. Of course, as someone that lives in Kenmore and works in Redmond, crossing the lake is rarely something I do.

I believe that high tolls would have the dual effect of paying for construction and reducing traffic as people make other commute decisions. Over time it would probably also cause people to re-think the wisdom of living and working on opposite sides of a major body of water. Of course, I've never understood why people would do that in the first place, tolls or not.

(Associated Press, NWCN, 01.30.2007)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Road Construction Costs Climb

It looks like we'll be getting even less road construction out of the RTID (if it even passes) than was previously thought.

The price tag for what was a $7.2 billion package of major new regional highways has risen by millions in the past year, leaving planners for a fall ballot measure searching for what to pursue and what to abandon.

The exact increase hasn't been calculated because a list developed a year ago didn't clearly define what projects would be built in the Interstate 405 and state Route 167 corridors. New cost estimates can't be compared with the original list in those cases, one state official said.

But new estimates circulated last week showed increases of more than $1.1 billion for just six of the biggest projects the Regional Transportation Investment District has on its list for King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.
The package, intended to supplement state highway spending, is expected to be on the November ballot and needs approval of voters in at least the urban areas of the three counties. The higher costs aren't expected to change the estimated $107 per-household cost of new taxes to help finance the projects but the higher costs could at least scale some projects back, if not eliminate any.
So, a vote for the RTID is a vote for an ever-shrinking list of road additions and improvements, plus billions of dollars frittered away on toy trains that a tiny percentage of the population will utilize. Sounds like a great plan guys. Good luck with that.

(Larry Lange, Seattle P-I, 01.15.2007)

Monday, January 08, 2007

Viaduct: To Vote or Not To Vote

I would be remiss if I didn't review the current situation with the Viaduct upon my return to posting here. Of course the latest news is Mrs. Gregoire's push for a public vote. It seems to me that, she's trying to have it both ways with this course of action. On the one hand, she avoids having to make a decision herself, but on the other hand, she can "put the pressure on" and appear to be a strong leader.

Gov. Christine Gregoire on Thursday said the state would move ahead with replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with an elevated highway if the city of Seattle fails to let voters decide the project's future this spring.

Gregoire last month called for a public vote in Seattle to break the political stalemate over whether to build a more affordable elevated structure or a tunnel that she considers financially out of reach.

She wants the vote to take place before this year's legislative session ends in April. The session starts Monday.

In recent weeks, some Seattle City Council members have questioned whether the issue should go before voters.

The governor gave the ultimatum in an interview at her office. If the public doesn't vote before lawmakers leave town, "it's over," she said. "It's over because then I will instruct the Department of Transportation to move forward with the above-ground" option.
At least she is (apparently) putting her foot down. Of course, any public vote on the matter will not include my favorite option, because a bridge doesn't cost enough to be worthwhile to the politicians' political backers. But I digress.

One thing in particular that amused me in this latest batch of Viaduct news is the amazingly blatant flip-flop-flipping of Mayor Nickels.
March 9, 2006: "Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who is pushing hard for a tunnel, said he welcomes a public vote."

September 22, 2006: "Mayor Greg Nickels, who had initially supported a vote, said he changed his mind after learning of the new numbers, feeling they were too uncertain to send to a vote."

December 21, 2006: "Mayor Greg Nickels, a tunnel advocate, said last week he welcomed a vote. Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said Wednesday the mayor stands by that position."
So which one is it Greg? Is citizen input welcome, or are we too stupid to comprehend all the nuances of funding a "$4.6 billion" (yeah right) tunnel?

Also worth noting is Danny Westneat's editorial yesterday in which he suggests that the city do a trial run of sorts on life without the viaduct:
So here's my modest proposal: Let's just try it. Close the viaduct. It's unsafe anyway, remember? Let's come up with a thousand-point plan like they did for the bus tunnel and shut down the viaduct for a month or two. Then see what happens.
That sounds like a good way to (hopefully) settle the argument about whether or not the "no build" plan is a viable option. Personally I think it would be stupid to tear down the viaduct and not replace it with another freeway, but I'd rather the city do that than sink untold billions of dollars into Big Dig, part II.

(Andrew Garber & Bob Young, Seattle Times, 01.05.2007)
(Danny Westneat, Seattle Times, 01.07.2007)

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Surprise! Traffic Getting Worse.

I think a good way to kick off the resumption of posting here would be to bring attention to the annual WSDOT Congestion Report. Here's a three-word summary that is sure to shock you: traffic got worse. Now enjoy some quotes from the press release:

To nearly no one’s surprise, the annual WSDOT congestion report released this week shows traffic congestion in the Puget Sound region is worse than it was two years ago.

The report tracks several measures of delay and congestion on major commuting routes. On 34 of the 35 commute routes analyzed, travel times increased at peak periods, speeds slowed, peaks lengthened, and the reliability of travel times worsened. All those factors resulted in reduced productivity of the freeway system, which means the system is less successful in meeting the need of people and freight to move around the region at the peak use hours.

“Several factors are playing a part in the build-up of congestion,” said state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald. “In the period from 2003 to 2005, the Central Puget Sound region added over 40,000 new jobs and over 70,000 new people. Growth is placing ever greater demands on the system.”

According to the state’s Chief Traffic Engineer Ted Trepanier, WSDOT’s efforts to operate the transportation system more efficiently are helping, but not by enough to offset the continuing pressures of more people and more trips on the freeways.
What troubles me more than traffic getting worse is that there does not appear to be any realistic plan to prevent it from continuing to get worse in the future. Puget Sound population is expected to continue to increase at a good rate, and yet there are virtually zero plans to increase road capacity in any serious way.

Instead it seems that all of the transportation schemes center around rail or "mass transit" systems that under even the most optimistic estimates will carry only a tiny percentage of the commuting public. How bad will traffic have to get before they actually decide to do something that will actually address the problem, instead of merely further utopian visions of an unattainable future?
As traffic jams affect more areas of the freeway system for longer periods of time, the importance of good driving becomes increasingly larger.

“On crowded freeways, bad driving practices cause traffic flow breakdowns and even result in accidents that can put traffic in gridlock for hours,” said Trepanier. “Fighting traffic congestion requires strong operational programs, delivery of new projects to build capacity and every-day attention by motorists to their own safe driving habits.”
Speaking of good driving, I believe that the biggest improvements in transportation will come not from mass transit or building roads, but from smarter, smaller cars. I think that within 50 years, we'll have fully automated cars drive themselves from point to point, communicating with each other in a wireless peer-to-peer network to automatically regulate congestion and avoid collisions. We're already well along the path, with incremental steps like adaptive cruise control and self-parking cars. If every car on the road was operating in sync with each other, freeway capacity would probably quadruple, since the need to maintain a "safe following distance" would be eliminated.

Anyway, now I've gone and put myself into fantasy Utopia dream mode. Even if self-driving cars are on the horizon, there's still a major traffic problem today that needs real solutions. I wonder when the policy-makers will wake up to that fact.

(Press Release, WSDOT, 11.15.2006)
(WSDOT Congestion Report, WSDOT, 11.22.2006)

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Seattle Traffic is on temporary hiatus until the new year. Between work, personal life, and the increasingly interesting happenings in the local real estate scene, I unfortunately do not have the time to post to this blog like I originally intended to.

After December, work should settle down and home improvement projects will be complete, and I hope to return to posting here. I apologize for the lapse.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Seattle: Smug, Arrogant, Delusional?

The Seattle P-I Virtual Editorial Board highlighted an excellent comment to an editorial about the $1.6 billion tax package. A reader going by the handle "Face Reality" made the following insightful observations:

Seattle has no coherent "tax plan": Or finance, revenue, fiscal or spending plans for that matter. It hasn't for over 20 years. A succession of irresponsible Councils and Mayors (that we insist on re-electing) seeking short term gratification has seen to that.
Instead of a measured, predictable tax package for very specific, prioritized needs we get an endless, open ended "all at once" debacle and xmas tree wish list that still includes money for needless things like Paul Allen SLU beautification.

Reckless tax and fiscal policies make this city that much more unaffordable for all but those who can blithely pay for our "new urban" paradise while unwittingly contributing to the very sprawl they decry: When everyone else is driven to more affordable areas outside Seattle – along with many of the businesses that employ them.

There is a direct correlation between taxes, sprawl and affordability. So many people here are in denial about that reality - you can't simply tax, grow or densify your way to affordability and a quality city. The concepts are mutually exclusive if badly applied - as in Seattle.

Poorly applied and rapid ramp ups in taxes raise housing prices and mortgage qualifications, stagnant business growth and cause decline in real revenues as the increased taxes are eaten up by more service demands that density creates. If this continues, a city inevitably declines as demographics and businesses leave for cheaper pastures, ie, the 'burbs.

The real bill will come due in just a few years, when the inevitable economic downturn combined with higher taxes that narrow the base and discourage businesses will bring both an actual DECLINE in tax revenues across the board and a grinding halt in City business and population growth.

With the usual Hobson's choice of cutting services vs raising taxes even higher, setting up the potential for the classic revenue "death spiral".

An experience well documented in just about every other American city the last 30 years – including memory challenged Seattle, once again the caboose on the train of national experience.

Smugness, arrogance, delusional growth projections, pseudo - environmentalism and the attitude "its different this time" are no defense against the lessons of history.
You should really go read the entire comment.

This was cross-posted on both Seattle Bubble and Seattle Traffic.

(Face Reality, Seattle P-I (comments), 08.16.2006 )

Study Funded By Tunnel Supporters Supports Tunnel

Would building a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct cost insane amounts of money? Yes. But wait, according to a new "study," the super-amazing fantastic tunnel of love would return that all of that expense (and more!) back to the city . Just like magic!

Replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel instead of a new elevated highway is well worth the extra cost, according to a study released Wednesday by a Seattle business group.

Tunnel opponents quickly criticized the Downtown Seattle Association study, and some were not even willing to concede that the current viaduct needs replacing. A state Transportation Department official warned that the project would soon stall without a decision on which option to pursue.

A tunnel along the downtown Seattle waterfront would cost $3 billion to $3.6 billion — at least $1 billion more than a new viaduct there, according to state estimates. But it would increase area property values by $450 million, stimulate $1 billion to $2 billion in development on "severely underbuilt" land and spur an extra $162 million to $325 million a year in tourism, according to the study, which economist Glenn Pascall presented at the Bell Harbor International Conference Center.

The association, which supports a tunnel, hired Pascall to review the effect of building one. Pointing to benefits that resulted from tearing down the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco and even from the construction of the notorious Big Dig in Boston, he said a tunnel would "create a magnet event."
In response, the No Tunnel Alliance noted that the study used the low end of the state's estimated cost difference between a tunnel and a viaduct and said it did not account for cost overruns and delays that some have said would be more likely with a tunnel. The group also questioned the study's conclusions regarding increases in property values and tourism, said a lack of tunnel exits downtown would increase congestion and harm businesses and worried about delays from city efforts to find the extra money for the tunnel.
So there you have it. Now we know that a tunnel would be worth the insane cost, because a study funded by the tunnel-loving Downtown Seattle Association says so.

Bah. I still want a bridge over Elliot Bay.

(Aubrey Cohen, Seattle P-I, 08.17.2006)

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Neverending Story

I was quite surprised to read the following article in the Seattle P-I about the City Council-proposed tax package. The tone of the article doesn't really "fit" with the general mentality in Seattle—a city that has never met a tax it didn't like.

Seattle politicians can't show you a price tag for the massive transportation measure they're pitching on the fall ballot.

But this much is clear: The unprecedented proposal could boost by as much as 34 percent how much the city collects from property owners — nearly six times what current law allows.

And it might be permanent — a first in Seattle for this type of tax increase.
City officials predict that over the lifetime of the 20-year package, the typical homeowner would see a tax-rate increase of 38 cents for every $1,000 of property value. For a $400,000 house, that would be more than $150 annually.

But that's only an estimate.

"It's an unprecedented levy in its size and duration," said City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck. "It's seriously lacking in public accountability and taxpayer accountability."
Activists, special interests and politicians often ask citizens to agree to temporary increases to pay for specific initiatives, such as affordable housing, school improvements and park construction.

This proposed levy has two noteworthy distinctions:
  • It could last forever.
Most levy increases expire in about five to seven years, although voters sometimes approve extensions. After the measure expires, the city's tax base reverts to its previous level.

In this proposal, after six years of increases of as much as 5 percent a year, the levy would not roll back. It would continue to grow 1 percent per year for 14 years. The City Council has approved a resolution stating that it wants to return to lower levels after 20 years, essentially to today's level plus the annual 1 percent increase allowed by state law, compounded over 20 years.

But future councils are not bound by that resolution.

"That was obviously appealing to many of my colleagues and the mayor — not to me, though," said Steinbrueck, who unsuccessfully tried to get his peers to set an expiration date to the tax increase. "Aside from the commitment to an oversight group handpicked by the mayor and council you don't have the same kind of broad public accountability that comes with a six- or eight-year levy, where the public has an opportunity to evaluate the promises and the results over a reasonable period of time."
Hey, if the residents of Seattle want to saddle themselves with this kind of unending overbearing tax burden (on top of the RTID, Sound Transit, and the plethora of other tax programs that have their hands in the pot), I suppose they'll get what they deserve. I still haven't been convinced that all of these additional taxes are even necessary. Isn't basic transportation infrastructure upkeep supposed to be one of the primary functions of government? Shouldn't they be spending general funds on roads, and putting things like arts promotion "affordable housing," and the Mayor's chauffeur up for public votes?

Of course, it might just be me, but it also seems like all these excessive taxes aren't going to do much to help the Mayor's plan to increase the city's population 60% by 2040. But what do I know, right?

(Angela Galloway, Seattle P-I, 08.16.2006)