inter-agency compacts

Letter from SDOT

I wrote an e-mail to the mayor about the comment here from [Seattle Greg]. It was a way to save the waterfront streetcar during the viaduct mess and a suggestion of bringing it north to the cruise ships.

The response I received from SDOT is below. A few interesting and depressing points:
1. Clearly they don’t intend to ever bring back to the waterfront streetcar. This is especially a shame, as 1st is so much less scenic than the waterfront.
2. Even with the tunnel option they’re planning on making Alaskan essentially into a highway. Ew.

It seems we’re missing an opportunity here. With the viaduct gone we could have a path-separated right of way for a streetcar. Instead we’re putting one stuck in 1st Avenue baseball traffic. Smart, Seattle.

Thank you for your recent message to Mayor Greg Nickels regarding the George Benson Waterfront Streetcar line.

The Alaskan Way needs to be replaced. Early in 2009, Governor Christine Gregoire, King County Executive Ron Sims, and Mayor Greg Nickels recommended replacement of the structure with a Bored Tunnel. More information about this project can be found at the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) website at The Bored Tunnel solution includes not only the roadway, but also transit and street improvements to complement the tunnel and maintain an acceptable level of mobility through the area.

As part of the Alaskan Way Viaduct Seawall Replacement (AWVSP), Alaskan Way will be rebuilt, necessitating the removal of existing streetcar tracks and overhead wire. Seawall construction, viaduct demolition, and construction of surface street and promenade improvements would intermittently interrupt waterfront streetcar operations between 2012 and 2018, making it an unattractive transit option for this program. However, a program of surface street and transit improvements is proposed as part of the AWVSRP, including a new streetcar line on First Avenue, funded by the City of Seattle. The new streetcar line would run parallel to the waterfront and provide convenient waterfront connections at several locations including Yesler Way, the Marion Street Pedestrian Bridge to Washington State Ferries, Harbor Steps, the Pike Place Market Hillclimb, the Bell Street Pedestrian Bridge connection to Bell Harbor Conference Center and the Port of Seattle Cruise Ship Terminal, and the Olympic Sculpture Park at Broad Street.

This new line will also provide significantly expanded connections, including service to Seattle Center, and will connect with other streetcar service such as the existing South Lake Union Line and the First Hill Line recently funded by Sound Transit. In addition, this line will provide further transit connections to Metro bus service, Sounder Commuter Rail, Link Light Rail, and the Monorail. The First Avenue Streetcar is planned to provide a much higher level of service than was available on the Waterfront Streetcar line, with streetcars arriving as frequently as every 7.5 minutes as compared with 20 minutes between trains on the Waterfront Streetcar line.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct solution of a bored tunnel was designed to respond to the variety of stakeholders who have an interest in this pathway. This includes transit riders, drivers, businesses, environmentalists and freight operators, among many others. Moving streetcar service to First Avenue will allow transit in the area to be improved and it will also allow Alaskan Way street and signal design to prioritize through movement for freight and vehicle trips that are not served by the new bored tunnel for State Route 99, while also reserving a significant portion of the right-of-way for a promenade green space.

Thank you again for your email. If you have further questions or comments, please contact Ethan Melone, SDOT Rail Transit Manager, at (206) 684-8066 or ethan(dot)melone(at)seattle.(dot)gov [editor: e-mail changed to avoid spambots].


Grace Crunican, Director
Seattle Department of Transportation

Gas Prices

This article has some interesting points to make about fuel consumption:

Americans spend 3.7 percent of their disposable income on transportation fuels. At its lowest point, that share was 1.9 percent in 1998, and at its highest, it reached 4.5 percent in 1981, said Johnson of Global Insight.

Still, despite the rise in energy prices, gasoline remains cheaper in the United States than in most industrialized countries. In France, for example, a gallon of gasoline costs about $7.70 at today’s exchange rates. Also, Americans pay less to drive a mile today than they did in 1980, once the impact of inflation and gains in fuel efficiency are taken into account, said Lee Schipper, a visiting scholar at the transportation center of the University of California, Berkeley.

Schipper estimates that the cost of gasoline per mile traveled will be about 15 cents this year. That is nearly three times the low of 5.6 cents a mile reached in 1998, when fuel efficiency peaked and prices were at their lowest. But it is still cheaper than the record paid in 1980 of 17.1 cents a mile, adjusted for inflation.

As bad as gas prices seem, they’re still not as high as they’ve been by historical standards. But people’s perception in this case matters at least as much as reality, and the perception is that gas prices are pretty darn high. Finally, it’s hard to separate the increase in gas prices from the general slow down of the economy in general.

All that said, it certainly does seem like the fundamentals of supply and demand, not reckless speculation, are leading us inexorably towards $200/barrel.

End of the Road

(inspired by [daimajin]’s post)

I know I’m preaching to the converted here, but I’d like to list another reason for building rail-based transit that has nothing to do with the gasoline that cars burn. It’s the roads that they drive on.

Let’s start with peak oil. Some say we hit it years ago and OPEC has been hiding this fact*, others say we are hitting it now (hence the price spikes), while some say it’s a decade or two away. But nobody says it’s much further than that. When we hit peak oil the price will rise at an exponential rate and never come down.

The road supporters either ignore this fact or tell us that we’ll find an alternative fuel for our cars. Although I mostly disagree (battery power has some potential – the others are dead ends), I won’t debate that here. What I will bring up is the roads themselves.

Roads, at least the top level, are made of asphalt concrete: asphalt mixed with rocks. Asphalt is an oil product. This layer of asphalt concrete breaks down over time and use, and needs to either be patched using more asphalt concrete or regenerated by removing it, grinding it up, and adding more asphalt.

So what happens to our miles and miles of roads when the price of oil goes up? Road maintenance requires a lot of oil. We either spend much more on roads (not new roads here – the same old roads) increasing cost with time, or we abandon roads over time.

Of course, this is an amazing waste of money, time, and resources. Steel rail is expensive, but we won’t run out of steel any time soon. Electric power lines are expensive, but we’ll be glad we have them once the rest of our transportation system starts breaking down.

So this is one of the reasons that building new roads seems ridiculous to me. Any new roads can only expect a few decades before we will have to consider abandoning them.

* Apparently OPEC members benefit from exaggerating their oil reserves. The amount of oil they are allowed to sell is proportional to how much reserves they report that they have.

update It looks like some predictions of peak oil say there will be no peak oil, notably OPEC and our EIA. Of course, OPEC’s model predicted in 2007 that “oil resource base is sufficient to satisfy demand increases until 2030 at a price of $50-60 per barrel, increasing afterwards to account for inflation.” Oops. What’s a barrel of oil at now, $132?

Crosstown Traffic

The council approved fixing two crosstown arterials today, Spokane St. and Mercer St. It’s a green light with an asterisk, though. The council says that SDOT can do engineering work and even acquire property, but the Mayor has to show that he’s got a financing plan before construction can begin.

It sounds like a pretty big vote of confidence on the part of the council, that either the city will come up with the money from outside sources, or from the city itself.

Background here on the back-and-forth between the Mayor and the Council over these projects.

Ninth Ave Goes Two-Way

9th Avenue in South Lake Union was restriped over the weekend, and is now a two-way street with bike lanes in either direction.

This is the complement to Westlake Avenue, which also went two-way recently. Bicyclists who were getting stuck in the streetcar tracks on Westlake can now use 9th instead and have their own dedicated lane.

I’m all for more two-way streets in Seattle. Except for downtown (and maybe the Roosevelt Ave-11th Ave NE combo in the U District), the traffic doesn’t really justify these wide, 3-lane one-way streets. They encourage speeding and bad driving. Just the other day, I was heading south on 9th Ave when another driver ahead of me decided to slowly drift across all three empty lanes — no turn signal, of course — right in front of me. I slammed on the brakes and we came with inches of crashing.


This quote from Sen. Jim Horn is priceless:

And any proposal would encounter stiff opposition from people like former state Sen. Jim Horn, R-Mercer Island, a longtime toll skeptic. He says regionwide tolling is really about “rationing your roadways and harming your quality of life.”

Sen. Horn then announced his proposal to widen I-405 to infinity lanes in each direction.

Mercer Mess


Two pieces worth reading on the Viaduct-Spokane St.-Mercer St. funding issue. Erica Barnett in the print edition of The Stranger, and Larry Lange on the P-I‘s Traffic Watch blog.

At issue is Mayor Nickels’ attempt to push a Mercer St. upgrade through the city council. Nickels doesn’t have the money for it, but he wants to link it to a rebuilt Spokane St. viaduct as a way to increase mobility when the Alaskan Way Viaduct comes down.

So far, the council isn’t buying, prefering to wait until more funding is secured. They may have a point. To the outside eye, it seems like Nickels is just rushing to get Mercer done so it’s nice and pretty in time for the Vulcan-built Amazon headquarters opening in SLU in 2011-2012, and he’s using the Viaduct as a convenient excuse. But that’s just idle speculation on my part.

That said, costs of a new Mercer St are going to continue go up, up, up. Maybe it is best to float a bond like the Mayor’s suggesting and get to work.

Rendering of Mercer St. looking west from SDOT.

Electric Cars

After watching Who Killed the Electric Car? the other night, I’ve posted some thoughts about electric vehicles here.

This comes just as Subaru and the New York Power Authority have commenced testing on Subaru’s new R1e for potential sale in the US.

Mercer and Spokane Streets

Two East-West routes that are critical to a post-Viaduct Seattle are still short funds in the wake of Prop. 1’s failure.

The Mercer cost estimate has increased $78 million since late last year, chiefly because of inflation and advanced design work that now includes property costs. The project would widen Mercer between Dexter Avenue and I-5 but not include reconnecting streets above Aurora Avenue.

Some $78.9 million has been secured for the Spokane widening, now estimated to cost $168.5 million, which includes $3.4 million from the Port of Seattle; new ramps would connect the Spokane Street Viaduct to the waterfront.

Lowering Aurora and reconnecting the streets above has always been the most appealing part of this project for me, but that’s because I don’t have to deal with Mercer during rush hour.

Also, if you’re interested, you can watch a video simulation of the 2-way Mercer and narrowed Valley streets here (22MB .avi movie). It sure will look cool when that new office goes in!

Think Big, Really Big

At the beginning of the 20th century, most Americans walked or rode transit to work. With few hard-surfaced roads outside towns and cities, the horse and the interurban remained the most practical way for farmers to get to town.

Companies making motorized vehicles had largely inherited their money or were already producing farm vehicles and wagons. Their business model was to use capital to produce a product, which was then sold to people who could afford it. At that time building a car usually took well over a month, and probably in 1900 America built about as many streetcars as automobiles.

Then Henry Ford arrived. His business model was to create capital and the market by mass production, totally transforming American society by “putting us on wheels”.

Much of what is said about Ford is a myth, invented after the fact, but the power of the myth derives from events- by the beginning of the 21st century, walking or riding transit to work had only a little more market share than the automobile had in 1900. The Ford model had redistributed the profits of mass production to the workers, entirely rebuilt the infrastructure of the nation, and drained the petroleum resources of the continent.

But now the wheels are falling off. Check out recent headlines- GM loses $39 billion (and 74,000 jobs disappear- this is the Ford economic model in full reverse)- Oil breaks $100/bbl but production remains flat-climate changes could kill thousands by 2012.

Within the lifetime of many readers, America must “nail the dismount”, abandoning mass car ownership in favor of transit, bicycles, and walking.

Think big, really big.