Congress Seeks to Make Fair Tax Treatment of Transit Permanent

wikimedia

There is an annual political struggle in Washington, D.C. to keep the tax deduction for employer transit benefits at the same level as the deduction for parking benefits. Before 2008 it was (perversely) about half the size, and for most of the time since it’s been at the same level thanks to series of temporary Congressional acts. Most recently, the January “fiscal cliff” deal equalized transit and parking maximum benefits at $230 per month through the end of this year.

Fortunately, Congress may act to make the equalization permanent (now at $245/month) through the “Commuter Parity Act”:

The Commuter Parity Act would help make the transit benefit on par with what drivers receive in pre-tax parking benefits for the long term, according to transit advocates…

The bill was introduced in the House by Reps. Michael G. Grimm (R-N.Y), James P. McGovern (D-Mass.), Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced it in the Senate.

It’s not surprising that New York congressmen would lead this, as their commuter rail riders can easily pay this in a month. Here in Washington, it’s ferry commuters and a few ST long-haulers that would benefit. I think there’s a strong public policy case to equalize them by bringing the parking benefit down rather than the transit one up, but the important thing is that we not explicitly encourage people driving to work any more than we already do.

The bill is H.R. 2288. In the Senate it is known as the “Commuter Benefits Equity Act” (S. 1116). The bills are in the Ways and Means and Finance Committees, respectively.

ST Updates Link Station Data Report

April13Weekday

Sound Transit spokesperson Bruce Gray has informed us that a compilation error caused some of the station level data we released earlier to be incorrect.  In Service Change 19 (June 9, 2012 to September 28, 2012) the information from page one did not match that from page four.  I’ve uploaded the corrected data here and updated the original post and my spreadsheet.  While on the subject of station data, I’d like to draw your attention to some analysis done by John Niles at his Public Interest Transportation Forum.  Link’s high seasonal variation is almost entirely due to fluxuations at Westlake, SeaTac and Stadium Stations.  John’s interesting graphs below the fold:

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Transit in the Construction Zone

by AL DIMOND

A few weekends ago, I forgot to check the construction and traffic alerts before getting in my car and got stuck in one hell of a traffic jam on Aurora Ave N, headed south toward downtown Seattle from Greenwood. Highway 99 was closed from Valley through the Battery Street Tunnel yet I, unaware of what was going on, failed to plan and drove right into an complete standstill, made worse by the difficulty of exiting the road south of the exit to Dexter.

Maybe such a failure of planning is to be expected for some portion of normal drivers. But when I came home and checked how the bus routes on Aurora were being rerouted I was surprised to see they were staying on 99 all the way down to Valley! That’s several trips per hour, on routes that use Aurora for its speed, moving few people very slowly. Watching King County Metro and the state and city transportation departments fail as badly to plan as I did was hard to take.

When severe congestion makes transit severely unreliable, people who absolutely must get where they’re going are more likely to drive, making the congestion even worse. People considering optional trips are more likely to stay home, causing economic impacts in the area and generally frustrating people’s desires, making them less happy. Mass transit has the ability to use road space very efficiently, to provide more trips with less congestion. But people have to be willing to take it; there has to be an incentive.

This is, of course, the reason we’ve added bus lanes on Aurora and parts of 520, and will be adding more. It’s the reason we need to add bi-directional bus lanes on I-5 all through Seattle, and on the route the West Seattle buses will take after the Viaduct comes down. And it’s the reason we need bus lanes through construction zones.

That weekend there was a hard bottleneck at Aurora and Valley and only a limited number of vehicles could get through. But if we had maintained a bus lane all the way through the bottleneck we could have made the most of that limited number of vehicles. We didn’t. It was miserable. And we aren’t, by any current plans, going to maintain bus lanes through the long-term bottleneck caused by Mercer West construction, and that will be miserable, too.

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Transportation Funding Town Hall Rescheduled for June 19

Metro had scheduled a town hall for last Thursday, June 6, to discuss funding sources and potential cuts.  But I guess Metro got wise to the fact that everybody and his uncle was having an open house that night, so they wisely rescheduled for June 19 at Bellevue City Hall.  That’s good news for folks who want to make sure their voice is heard:

5:30-6:30 p.m. - open house and comment period (concourse)
6:30-8 p.m. – moderated town hall (council chambers)

Bellevue City Hall
450 110th Ave NE
Bellevue

More here.

News Roundup: Fancy New Trains

KurtClark/Flickr

This is an open thread.

Mercer Island Station Open House Report Clarifications

A few minor changes to details in the Mercer Island Station Open House Report have been made, to wit:

1: Paul Cornish is a project manager in civil engineering at Sound Transit.

2: While East Link construction will begin in 2015, Mercer Island Station construction begins in 2016, when the center lanes of I-90 are scheduled to be closed.

3: Hewitt and his firm are handling the design for the station at this point.

4: Paul Bennett is also the name of a Sound Transit engineer, so the post was edited to avoid confusion.

Finally, an extra sentence concerning the acoustic walls was added.

Curtis King Wants Sales Tax for Transit, Not MVETs

Senator Curtis King (Yakima)

Yesterday, Senate Transportation Committee Chair Curtis King unveiled his own transportation proposal to compete with the bill that’s currently being tossed around in the House.  The House bill, HB 1954, would allow King County to raise a 1.5% MVET– 60% for Metro, 40% for roads– but only by voter approval.  The gripe of many on this blog is that the provisions for transit are welded to a massively disproportional allocation to new roads, which has put many transit advocates in a quandary.

Any silver lining that exists in the House bill is vanquished by the Senate proposal, which contains no state money for transit, pedestrians, or cyclists.  And instead of allowing the more sustainable and progressive MVET to fund local transit, Sen. King is proposing to raise the sales tax ceiling from 0.9% to 1.2%.  In a perfect world, the 0.3% increase is probably enough to plug Metro’s budget hole of $60 million/year.  That perfect world, however, would have to be immune to recessions and have no poor people in it.

The reality, of course, is that shifting primarily to sales tax for revenue is partly the reason why we got into this mess in the first place.  Social justice advocates should also cringe at the proposal, which effectively increases the tax burden on the poor.   As the Senate transportation package is coming from a staunch transit opponent, I see little reason for transit advocates to take this proposal seriously.

Suing Our Way to Better Transit

In Wisconsin, they’re enlisting the judicial branch in service of improving transit:

A federal judge in Wisconsin has allowed a lawsuit against a major urban freeway project to proceed, agreeing with community groups that low-income residents could suffer “irreparable harm” if the project moves forward. The groups contend that the project advantages wealthier auto commuters at the expense of poorer transit riders , and the judge found that the plaintiffs have a likelihood of success on the merits.

The plaintiffs argue that transit-dependent city residents need access to jobs in the suburbs served by the project, that the project will accelerate development in suburban locations, and that the project will have detrimental effects on air quality. The project’s EIS provides evidence of substantial transit service between the core urban area on the eastern end of the project and suburban Waukesha County, the western terminus of the project. However with the exception of one route, this service is structured to provide peak travel-direction service for suburban residents accessing jobs in the city and does not provide reverse access.

Our local politicians’ behavior on this issue is increasingly schizophrenic.  On the one hand, they’re setting ambitious targets to reduce our carbon impact, while on the other, they embark on expensive carbon-inducing highway expansions. Getting more transit via litigation is incredibly inefficient, but it might be a way to “heighten the contradictions,” so to speak.

To be sure, Olympia did not invent this schizophrenia. They inherited it from the voters. The voters are the ones who support reducing carbon emissions, but are unwilling to incur any costs to do so.  The fault, as Cassius says to Brutus, lies not within our stars, but within ourselves.

(via Human Transit)

Metro Looks to Hire New Chief Service Planner

From the King County Jobs posting:

Job Title: Transit Supervisor – Service Planning
Opening Date/Time: Thu. 06/06/13 12:00 AM Pacific Time
Closing Date/Time: Mon. 06/24/13 4:30 PM Pacific Time
Salary: $96,250.34 – $116,359.36 Annually
Job Type: Career Service, Full Time, 40 hrs/week

As supervisor of the Service Planning group in the Transit Division’s Service Development Section, this position manages, supervises and directs short range transit service planning and prepares service change recommendations consistent with the policy direction in King County Metro Transit’s Strategic Plan for Public Transportation and associated service guidelines. This position supervises a skilled staff of eight transportation planners who perform this work.

This is a highly visible position that represents transportation plans and planning guidelines to a wide variety of audiences and decision-makers. With its peer workgroup supervisors who manage strategic and long-range planning, route facilities, transit systems and traffic engineering, market development and bus scheduling, this position is responsible for planning effective transit services and increasing usage of the public transportation system. Work is performed independently under the general supervision of the Service Development Manager.

People at Metro tell me that this public posting is not merely pro forma: the agency is looking to hire either internally or externally for this position. The person who takes it will likely oversee at least two major changes to the King County Metro system: either the 17% “doomsday” cuts, or a modest systemwide increase in service, depending on whether and when new revenue is forthcoming in the next couple of years; the opening of University Link in 2016; and the opening of North Link in 2021.

From my observations, Metro’s planning staff, if left to their own devices, would build the kind of transit network most STB authors and readers would love to see, prioritizing frequency on core routes over coverage, while management is primarily concerned with keeping the King County Council happy, which translates into something quite different. The chief planner seems to operate as the interface between planning staff and management, so this role can be intense when major changes are in the offing.

While the Council controls the broad strokes of policy, I’ve seen first-hand the beneficial effects that the right staff person in the right place can have on transit planning, and this is one of the most important staff positions out there. If you have professional contacts who might be qualified for this role, please forward this opening to them and encourage them to apply.

This vacancy arises from the transition of the previous planning supervisor, David Hull, to be the head of Accessible Services. I’d like to publicly thank David for his copious hard work on last year’s RapidRide C/D restructure, and for answering so many of my difficult questions via email and in person over the last couple of years.

April 2013 ST Ridership Report

April13Weekday

Sound Transit’s April 2013 ridership report is out and shows continued year-on-year gains for all services.

April’s Central Link Weekday/Saturday/Sunday boardings were 27,019/19,515/14,643, changes of +11.1%, -5.7%, and +4.4% respectively over April 2012. Sounder’s weekday boardings were up 6.0% (despite mudslides on the North Line). Total Tacoma Link ridership was up 2.2% but weekday ridership declined 0.4%. Weekday ST Express ridership was up 11.0%.

April was the fourth month in a row where Central Link Weekday ridership increase 10% or more year over year and the eleventh month of the last thirteen.

My Link charts below the fold.

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Sunday Open Thread: Sky City

There are things to like about this concept, but overall it seems ill-conceived:

Mercer Island Station Open House Report

Screenshot 2013-06-07 at 6.33.04 PM

Thursday evening Sound Transit staff conducted an open house at the Mercer Island Community Center focused on the East Link light rail extension. Approximately 80 to 90 people, including staff, trickled in throughout the evening, which included the brief opening, presentation, and Q&A sessions. The presentation centered on the design of Mercer Island Station in particular, approximately 30% complete. Essentially, the alignment of the track is completely determined at this point; several Sound Transit engineers at the open house intimated that this was the crucial first step of the design.

“There’s a lot of work ahead of this, but we’re at a point where we have a good idea of what’ll work correctly,” said David Hewitt, founder of Hewitt, an urban planning and design firm handling the design of Mercer Island Station East Link.

As one resident put it: “They’ve done their homework.”

The Mercer Island Station (a working name) will squat firmly in the center roadway of I-90, with light rail running on either side. From 77th and 80th Avenues SE, riders can stroll into the western and eastern entrances of the station, respectively. Detailed images and layouts are available here.

mi_eastentrance

Each entrance will consist of a plaza with ticketing and seating areas, leading to an escalator, a stair, and an elevator, with surrounding lightweight steel and glass structures. The east entrance will also have a bicycle cage for secure storage. Once a rider descends 25 feet onto the central platform, she has roughly 380 feet of open space in which to frolic, with a central canopy serving as weather cover. Sound-dampening walls specially designed to absorb I-90′s acoustic assault will outline the tracks.

“It’s fairly symmetrical in nature,” Hewitt said. “The scale of the station is a very pleasant one we think.”

mi_overhead

More after the jump.

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Link’s Reduced Service Ending Monday

Avgeek Joe/Flickr

The sound wall installation that was expected to reduce Link headways to 20 minutes after 9 pm weeknights through July 31st wrapped up almost two months early:

Link light rail will resume its normal nighttime operating schedule beginning Monday, June 10.

Sound Transit contractors have completed installing a new sound wall along the light rail tracks near the Duwamish River in Tukwila. The work forced delays through the area and was originally anticipated to last through July.

The service reduction typically cost only five minutes or less on a late-night trip. However, as someone who’s used Oran’s unofficial Link schedule for years to avoid long waits, I gained a new appreciation for the non-STB-reading rider that has had neither schedule, nor OneBusAway, nor real-time arrival signs when Link drops down to frequencies where it would ideally have all three.

Center City Connector: Streetcar Moves Forward

Open House Crowd

Open House Crowd

One of my favorite ways to evaluate a new product or service is with Clay Christensen’s “Job to be done” framework. I won’t bore you with the details, but the idea is that people don’t compare feature lists when evaluating a product.  They have a job to do, and they hire the best product or service to do it. The trick for the product designer is to figure out what the job is to be done.  Put another way, people don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.

The job to be done was on my mind as I attended last night’s open house for the Center City Connector.  The CCC was one of the corridors identified in the Transit Master Plan as a potential high-capacity corridor.  When I attended the last open house, the mode choice was still technically up in the air (though never in much doubt).  Yesterday, the Mayor made it official: the CCC will be a streetcar.  Not only that, but connecting the First Hill and South Lake Union streetcar lines into a single, U-shaped line is now an explicit goal of the project. Specifically, the purpose of the project is “to improve north-south transit mobility through downtown and to connect the SLU Streetcar and FH Streetcar.”

That makes sense and all, but connecting lines is primarily an operations goal, not an end-user goal (though it has certain end-user benefits).  I am on the corner of Westlake and Harrison in the year 2016.  It’s noon on a Tuesday. I need to get to 3rd and Marion.  That’s the job to be done. What service will I hire to get me there? I have many options: car, cab, Car2Go, my two feet, Puget Sound Bikeshare, a Metro bus, and the Streetcar.  The choice will come down to an array of factors: how much I’m willing to spend, how much time I have, when the next streetcar is coming, whether I know where the nearest bus stop is, etc. For a streetcar to be competitive in this mix of options, it has to be obvious, which a streetcar – thanks to its nice stations, tracks, and clanging bell – usually is. But it also has to be frequent and reasonably fast.

A full report on the state of the project after the jump…

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Link to Fun

CentralLink_Summer_Fun_Hero_finalfinal

Sound Transit has one-upped our Link Excuse of the Week, and put together a great website highlighting events up and down Central Link for the entire summer.  Check out the Link to Fun page and go do something new!  As an extra incentive, at events that have an asterisk beside them, Sound Transit will host an info booth where you can enter to win an ORCA card.   These last couple of months from SDOT’s Ride Route 7 promotion, to Metro’s Route 50 promotion*, and now Sound Transit’s Link to Fun, I have been very impressed with the outreach work our agencies have been doing; especially the ORCA card tie ins.

*Although not mentioned in the linked press release, the mailer had a postcard you could send in for a complete Route 50 information pack and a $10 ORCA Card.

A First Look at South Bellevue East Link Stations

South Bellevue neighborhood context plan.

South Bellevue neighborhood context plan (click to enlarge).

The public got a chance to see the long-awaited first renderings of the South Bellevue and East Main Link stations at Sound Transit’s third final design open house last week.  With the alignment decision settled, planners are considering a series of design improvements– bicycle/pedestrian access, station architecture, site planning, etc.  As with the other East Link stations, station naming will also be a part of this process.

Although no one expects South Bellevue to transform into some greenfield TOD hub, there is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to station access.  ST is meeting basic expectations by rebuilding sidewalks and preserving the multi-use trail along Bellevue Way.  One opportunity far too potent to pass up, however, is greatly expanding the station walkshed by improving neighborhood connections, something that’s been a pet cause of mine for some time now.

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News Roundup: The Real Tyranny

Burien Transit Center (Atomic Taco/Flickr)

This is an open thread.

Ride Route 7 Promotion Followup

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Around the Block

Two weeks ago as part of our semi-regular Link Excuse of the Week series we highlighted the Columbia City Farmers Market and the Ride Route 7 Promotion.  The event was a smashing success.  When I arrived after work the line was around the block.  While I was waiting they ran out of pledge cards.  When I left an hour and half later the line was still around the block.  Curious, I wrote to SDOT asking about the event.  Many thanks to Jonathan Dong and the whole Ride Route 7 team at SDOT for the quick and thorough response (below the fold):

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Prospects for TOD in Rainier Valley

Future Plans (othellopartners.com)

Puget Sound Business Journal recently ran a wonderful series on TOD. Check out the “related stories” ($) for a focus on Pioneer Square, Mt. Baker, Othello, and Federal Way. I especially enjoyed the interview with actual real estate decisionmakers.

In the region’s first test case — the $2.4 billion light-rail line that opened in 2009, many of the TOD parcels Sound Transit offered to developers turned out not to be economically viable.

“Link Light Rail through Southeast Seattle is a great example of what not to do,” said Levine of the Seattle Housing Authority. “You’ve got 20 fenced-in sites that are too small to develop.”…

Ric Ilgenfritz, Sound Transit’s executive director for planning and project development, said officials complied with federal policies that dictate that the agency can buy only the property it needs for the projects themselves…

Last year, Sound Transit adopted a new TOD policy. As the agency maps out routes and designs stations, Ilgenfritz said, staff members try to be “more intentional about our planning up front” to encourage density along transit lines.

Much, much more after the jump.

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After Bridge Collapse, Voters Appear Mixed on Transportation Taxes

Gordon Werner/Flicrk

Back in March Sherwin had a great post on polling and context, using an Elway poll as reference.  Yesterday Elway released an updated poll conducted in the aftermath of the Skagit Bridge Collapse.  From the Seattle Times ($):

A gasoline tax remains particularly objectionable, opposed by 63 percent of those in the new survey — down from 72 percent in March.

In the new survey, 53 percent opposed a license-tab tax increase, down from 62 percent in March.

And 52 percent opposed tolling major roadways, down from 61 percent in March.

Overall, 54 percent of those in the new survey agreed with the statement that we cannot afford to raise taxes to pay for transportation improvements at this time. Forty percent said we can’t afford not to improve our transportation system, so taxes will have to be raised.

For transit supporters this is a mixed result.  While many feel the current highway expansion package is flawed and hope it will fail (see comments at link), most agree that we need to raise the gas tax and other user fees in order to maintain what we already have and fund alternatives to driving.

Thankfully, an EMC poll was released today with starkly different results.  On the surface the poll subject seems similar, but Erica Barnett at PubliCola made some good points about differences between the two. However, I think she missed the most important distinction.  The Elway poll asked only about unspecified “transportation improvements” while the EMC specified a “statewide transportation package this year to address congestion and safety issues; fund road and bridge maintenance and improvements; and provide additional transit funding.”

In other words, when the question is framed as Fix It and Transit, it wins across the board.