Archive for May, 2010

It may cost to use major roads in metro area by 2030

Friday, May 21st, 2010

Journal of Commerce reporter Marc Stiles recently wrote a compelling story that talks about the potential tolling of all major roads in this area. Here it is:

The Puget Sound Regional Council is expected to approve a far-reaching plan this afternoon that could lead to tolling of all major roads in the metropolitan area by 2030.

Meanwhile, the Washington State Department of Transportation plans to spend another $7 million on roadway tolling consultants.

These moves show how wide spread tolling is likely to become in Washington.

Last year, WSDOT hired Electronic Transaction Consultants of Texas to operate a new statewide customer service center for toll operations. ETC will provide customer service for an electronic tolling program called Good to Go. The company also will process payments and collect money from toll scofflaws. The five-year contract is valued at approximately $23 million.

Now WSDOT is hiring teams to work together as the statewide general toll consultant. Engineers and management consultants are needed to help plan toll systems, according to Janet Matkin, WSDOT toll marketing communications manager.

Consultants’ proposals are due June 1, according to the notice in the May 14 DJC.

This will be a three-year contract. WSDOT anticipates spending $3 million in the first year, and $2 million per year after. There is an option to extend the contract to five years or more.

The state now tolls the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and the state Route 167 HOT lanes. Motorists driving alone on SR 167 can pay to drive in the carpool, or high-occupancy vehicle, lanes. HOT stands for high-occupancy toll.

Starting next spring, SR 520 bridge tolls will be collected electronically through prepaid Good to Go accounts or by mail via bills sent to registered vehicle owners. Toll rates will vary depending on the time of day; the goal is to encourage more off-peak travel and reduce congestion.

WSDOT also is looking at tolling the Eastside corridor, which is more than 50 miles long and connects Interstate 405 to state routes 167 and 512. WSDOT officials studied the matter with representatives of cities in the corridor. The group recommended that WSDOT phase in tolling, starting with the Bellevue-to-Lynnwood portion of 405.

Another possibility is tolling vehicles that use the proposed tunnel that could replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct on Seattle’s waterfront, as well as vehicles on the proposed Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River between Vancouver and Portland.

Regionwide tolls

Last year, the Puget Sound Regional Council Executive Board endorsed a plan called Transportation 2040. It would move the region away from gas taxes and other traditional revenue sources toward user fees, including tolls on freeways and other major highways.

The plan assumes that by 2020 all major roads will be either tolled or have HOT lanes. By 2030, all lanes will be fully tolled. The plan also says the region should consider replacing the fuel tax with a charge for miles traveled.

PSRC released the final environmental impact statement on the plan in March, and the PSRC General Assembly is scheduled to adopt the plan at its meeting at 3:30 p.m. today at the Doubletree Arctic Club Hotel at 700 Third Ave., in Seattle.

Ninety-seven percent of the Executive Board voted for the plan in December. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and Port Orchard Mayor Lary Coppola cast the no votes. Based on the overwhelming approval last year, a PSRC representative said the General Assembly is expected to approve the plan.

A McGinn spokesperson said the mayor voted against the plan because it does not meet “our objectives for transit, land use, social equity, or greenhouse emissions. Instead of moving our region forward in improving transit, density, equal access to infrastructure and greenhouse gas reductions, the plan will preserve the status quo with only relatively modest investments in transit and biking, coupled with massive expansions of new highways.”

(Editor’s note: This original story has been updated to explain why McGinn voted no.)

The plan includes $191 billion worth of transportation projects. Among them are completing projects in the Sound Transit 2 package that voters OK’d in 2008; and finishing state Route 167, the Cross Base Highway in Pierce County and state Route 509 south of Sea-Tac Airport.

The plan supports replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the SR 520 floating bridge. Other highways would be widened. A complete list of the projects is at psrc.org.

A PSRC analysis shows financing exists for only about $125 billion of the projects. PSRC staff members said in December that this doesn’t necessarily mean the plan is financially impractical. They said about half of the $66 billion shortfall could come from toll revenue.

WSDOT’s plan to hire a statewide toll consultant is not directly related to the tolling recommendations in Transportation 2040, but does recognize the role tolling will play in the construction of large transportation projects in Washington, Matkin said.

The General Assembly is composed of elected officials representing PSRC members, including King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties, 71 cities and towns, the region’s port districts, transit agencies and tribes.

Licata: Time to look for cuts in Mercer project

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata says in his May 13 newsletter Urban Politics that Seattle’s financial troubles mean it is time for a hard look at the city’s construction budget to look for ways to save, particularly on the Mercer West project. Here is an edited version of his comments.

By Nick Licata

By now just about everyone should be aware that the city will have to cut over $50 million from our budget next year. The mayor is currently providing city departments with guidelines on what percentage of their budget will have to be cut. A number of departments could see cuts as high as 14-15 percent, if Human Services and Public Safety (Police and Fire) remain relatively whole; they account for 49 percent of the city’s general fund. Around 13 percent of the general fund pays for fixed costs such as debt, pensions, etc., leaving 38 percent of the general fund likely targeted for larger cuts. This is the portion that includes parks and libraries, for example. In addition, the council and the mayor must still make mid-year 2010 cuts, which will likely be in the $12 million range.

The mayor will send a mid-year reduction proposal to the council, likely by mid-June. For the 2011 proposal, due in September, the only options are to cut spending or find new revenue. Even with new revenues, cuts will still need to be made.

I believe we must re-examine our current construction budget to see what savings we can realize. In a March presentation the City Council’s central staff laid out a sobering assessment of future city construction projects and current financial resources.

Upcoming needs include replacing maintenance facilities, the North Police Precinct, Magnolia Bridge, Harbor Patrol and downtown waterfront fire stations, and of course, the seawall and viaduct-related work. This totals around $1 billion.

We also have a Seattle Center Master Plan, estimated at $625 million over 20 years, a Bicycle Master Plan at $240 million over 10 years that we’re behind on funding, and a Pedestrian Master Plan with an open-ended commitment of around $1 billion.

Although separately funded, there are several major utility projects in the pipeline: combined sewer overflow, Duwamish clean-up, South Lake Union Substation, Smartgrid, all at $100 million or so-each. That doesn’t include the $250-plus million for Viaduct-related utility work.
These projects do not address the mayor’s possible proposals for light rail and broadband.

And lastly there is the South Park Bridge, owned by King County, which is scheduled to be closed June 30.

The city will receive bids for the Mercer Project on May 19, and the Council’s Transportation Committee could vote to lift a ban on construction spending as soon as May 25. I expect the bids to come in below projections, perhaps by as much as 15 to 20 percent. That is the good news. However, close to $100 million is required for the second part, called Mercer West, much of which may have to be funded by bonds, which would add principal and debt costs. It is critical that we evaluate the design on Mercer West to determine if any savings can be achieved.

The current Mercer West design would convert Mercer to 2-way traffic east of Dexter, and expand the underpass under Aurora from four to six lanes for the two blocks from Dexter to Fifth. It also includes bicycle and pedestrian improvements. Most of the cost is for the underpass. Given the current budget situation, the underpass is worth reconsidering.

SDOT has emphasized that the goal of the Mercer project is to improve area-wide travel, not just to redo Mercer. It has long included, for example, narrowing Valley adjacent to Lake Union Park. It may be possible to attain project goals without the underpass, since the state is funding three new crossings over Aurora at John, Thomas and Harrison between Mercer and Denny as part of the Viaduct replacement project. This adds six lanes of crossings over Aurora, three in each direction, and counterbalances the four lanes of Broad Street likely to be removed.

Bicycle and pedestrian crossings could be incorporated into the three crossings. Dexter Avenue on the east side of Aurora already has bicycle lanes.

There hasn’t yet been any travel time analysis I’ve seen that incorporates the three Aurora crossings. SDOT’s earlier travel time analyses didn’t include the crossings, as they weren’t funded yet. I believe this should be done. Expanding the Mercer underpass would give us eight new lanes to cross Aurora, instead of six. Do we really need all eight new lanes in a time of sharp budget cuts, especially if project goals can be realized at a lower cost?

Eliminating the expanded Mercer underpass, if it doesn’t create a safety hazard, would help in two ways. First it would reduce the need for any bond financing and secondly it would allow funds to go towards completing our pedestrian and bicycle master plans, or perhaps allow the City to direct some funding to King County’s South Park Bridge replacement project, an indisputably pressing need.

Where pedestrians count

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

New York sure treats pedestrians better than Seattle does.

I’m in Manhattan for a few days, walking loops from the Battery to Harlem. Being used to Seattle, I’ve rarely felt so coddled by a city.

Many Seattle annoyances are gone. Sandwich boards are neatly out of the way. Jaywalking doesn’t require looking for cops first (still honoring right of way of course), and sidestreets are narrow so crossing is quick. Tree wells aren’t designed to hurt you or make you walk single-file. Dog owners keep their leashes short so they don’t trip people. I’ve yet to see a push button. Cars stop before crosswalks, not in them, in part because there’s (presumably) no free right turn, and in part because they’re not rude.

In other words, both New York and its public have learned that walkability is more than platitudes, and living close together comes with a code of conduct. Seattle should learn from that.

Without waxing too poetic, I love this city…not in the critical but permanent way I love Seattle, but more a deep admiration. Manhattan’s density of buildings, residents, tourists, jobs, and transit is phenomenal, both in ambiance and in the great things it supports. And the architecture! It’s scientific fact that the two best highrises in the world are the Chrysler and Woolworth Buildings, and the midrise vernacular…

My hotel computer is running out….off to the view from Empire State!

For Whom the Tunnel Tolls

Monday, May 10th, 2010

There are some things we know about the deep bore tunnel proposed as a replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. It’s going to be expensive, costing the state, city and port a combined total of at least $4.5 billion dollars. We also know that it will only add to Seattle’s carbon emissions problem. Building highways has a tendency to do that. And most experts agree that there will be cost overruns on the construction. That means the project will likely encounter problems that will slow the project down (see the Brightwater debacle) and materials and labor will end up costing much more than expected. Right now the legislation authorizing the tunnel project says that Seattle is on the hook to pay all of these overruns. But what happens if the revenue for the tunnel doesn’t come in? Even if all the projections for the costs of the tunnel are spot on (which is unlikely) if tolling revenue doesn’t come in as expected, the cash strapped City of Seattle will have to make up the difference. And a closer look at the revenue claims—both tolls and promises from the port—should give the Seattle City Council another reason to pause before diving into an agreement in which it obligates Seattle taxpayers to pay for overruns.

Will drivers really pay to use the deep bore tunnel?
Will drivers really pay to use the deep bore tunnel?

The legislation states pretty clearly that the state’s contribution will not go higher than $2.4 billion dollars. It further stipulates that “if costs exceed two billion four hundred million dollars, no more than four hundred million of the additional costs shall be financed with toll revenue.” First off, the legislation makes it impossible for the project to make up cost overruns using tolling revenue because it limits that revenue to $400 million. But what happens if that revenue doesn’t even get to $400 million?

Just do the math. If the project comes in perfectly on budget but tolling revenue ends up being just $300 million, that extra $100 million comes out of the City of Seattle’s budget. And is there reason to think that would happen? Just consider State Route 167. That project was supposed to be paid for largely with toll revenue. The problem is that the Hot Lane experiment—allowing drivers to buy their way onto a special lane to beat congestion—is failing. People aren’t buying into the program. Less than half of the drivers expected to use the Hot Lanes actually are doing so, and the revenues aren’t paying for project costs.

And why would people want to pay extra for a trip through a gold plated tunnel? Consider the fact that projections indicate that the trip along Alaskan Way—which is not tolled—will take the same amount of time as going through a tolled tunnel which will cost $7.50 or more. Why would drivers spend that kind of money when they can literally just by pass the tunnel for free? And strangely, the Washington State Department of Transportation’s projections have been revised down from about 118,000 vehicles per day down to more like 49,000 cars at peak use. Mayor McGinn’s most recent review indicates that number may be even less, more like 26,000 vehicles. One way to help with the problem might be to increase the toll, but wouldn’t that just push more cars on to Alaskan Way?

And what about the $300 million the port has said its going to kick in for the project? That would likely come from property taxes levied on people throughout King County, most of whom won’t ever use the tunnel. And if they did they’d still have to lay down the cash for a trip through it. Imagine how a family in North Bend will feel paying for the deep bore tunnel on their property tax bill and then, in the unlikely event they would ever drive through it, pay a hefty toll. The politics of property tax hikes for things property owners will never use are pretty dicey. The Port of Seattle might change its mind.

So add these sketchy revenue predictions to the sketchy cost projections and any policy maker and any level of government would have to wonder what on earth are we doing here? But the Council seems determined to plow ahead insisting that, in the words of Council President Richard Conlin, “there will be no cost overruns.” This is the same Richard Conlin who recently in Yes! Magazine was giving the rest of the region lessons on how Seattle is going to achieve carbon neutrality. Talk about a Sustainability Gap!  If the Council President manages to get his way on the tunnel we’re almost certain to see overruns because of higher costs. And we may see overruns because of poor performance of tolling revenue and a collapse of the promise from the Port. We might get overruns because of costs and flagging revenues. And these overruns will come out of the wallets of hard working Seattleites. Is it too much to ask our City Council to get us off that hook?

Queen Anne spruces up retail core

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

planting_web
Picture Perfect Queen Anne, a group of residents, merchants and property owners, organized a celebration last Saturday to mark completion of a landscaping project and a new stone walkway called Green Gateways Queen Anne.
Picture Perfect Queen Anne said the community raised more than $16,000 to landscape and maintain 2,200 square feet of new garden space.
“Thanks to the overwhelming generosity of our neighborhood residents, organizations and business people, Seattle’s Office of Economic Development, and Seattle’s Department of Transportation, we have surpassed our fundraising goal of $16,000,” said Elaine Talbot, Picture Perfect Queen Anne treasurer. 
The work involves revitalizing the streetscape in the retail core near the McGraw and Galer Street intersections, on top of Queen Anne Hill. It is intended to make the area safer for pedestrians and drivers.
“We couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome of the Green Gateways Project,” says Kathy King, founder of Picture Perfect Queen Anne. “Queen Anne is one of Seattle’s most walkable neighborhoods. Pedestrian safety and a family friendly environment are important to neighborhoods and the city. Not only will we have welcoming spaces, we will, with the engraved paving stone walkway, have a historic reminder of the people who made our neighborhood what it is today.”
The community group organized workshops in 2005 with Zimmer, Gunsul, Frasca Partnership to come up with ways to make sidewalks and intersection crossings safer. SDOT built new curb bulbs in 2009.
To learn more about plans for Queen Anne Avenue go to www.ppqa.org.