Tag Archives: Seattle

Should Tolling Aim to Reduce Driving
or Increase Economic Opportunities?

Seattle’s mayor has announced a vague proposal to toll downtown streets in order to relieve congestion. While the Antiplanner supports congestion pricing, I oppose cordon pricing, which is more of a revenue-raising scheme than a congestion-reduction program, and it isn’t yet clear which of these two the mayor is proposing.

Tolling has a bad reputation in Seattle because stiff penalties on people who failed to pay bridge tolls were so oppressive that they put some people into bankruptcy. At the same time, a well-designed tolling system can be good for low-income people, in the same way that they are better off paying market prices for groceries rather than having food allocated by the government, which generally results in little or no food available at all.

The downtown congestion that the mayor wants to fix is a problem of the city’s own making. Thanks to a variety of subsidies and incentives, the number of jobs in greater downtown Seattle — which covers a little more than 10 percent of the city — grew by 30 percent to 262,000 between 2010 and 2017. Although only a quarter of downtown employers drive to work, that’s more than the number who drive to work in downtown Portland, where more than half the employees commute by auto but has only around 100,000 jobs. Continue reading


Cancel the Seattle Streetcar

It’s at least 80 percent over budget, as it was supposed to cost $110 million and is now expected to cost more than $200 million. Ridership is well short of expectations. And projections of operating costs are far greater than the original claims. So Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan has halted construction on an expansion of the city’s streetcar lines.

This is certainly a brave step considering the enormous pressures to distribute tax dollars to worthy potential campaign donors. Plus streetcar advocates warn that halting and then restarting construction could add even more millions to the cost.

But those things shouldn’t matter. “The City of Seattle has a critical obligation to spend taxpayer dollars wisely and an equal obligation to transparency,” says Mayor Durkan. And at this point, the wisest thing to do would be to cancel the streetcar completely. Continue reading


Seattle Fails the Streetcar Intelligence Test

Streetcars are supposed to be the least-expensive form of rail transit, yet Seattle is spending $177 million building a 1.2-mile streetcar line. At $147.5 million a mile, that’s more expensive than many light-rail lines.

The 1.2-mile City Center Connector will connect the 1.3-mile South Lake Union Trolley and the 2.5-mile First Hill streetcar.

Moreover, the plan of the city (which is building the streetcar) appears to be overly optimistic about both ridership and operating costs. The city already has two streetcar lines, and the new one will connect the two. But since the two existing lines parallel each other, connecting them — creating a U-shaped route — doesn’t necessarily make them a lot more useful to riders. As shown in the map above, the connecting line will give riders more access to downtown, but no one except a few streetcar enthusiasts is going to want to ride from one end of the South Lake Union line to the other end of the First Hill line. Continue reading


Sometimes the Answer Is “Yes”

As the Antiplanner has noted before, Betteridge’s law states that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” But there are always exceptions, and one can be found above a recent Seattle Times article about a recent light-rail ballot measure, asking “Did Sound Transit mislead legislators and voters?

The Antiplanner doesn’t like to use generalities, but one that is even more reliable than Betteridge’s Law is that almost everything light-rail advocates say is untrue. Contrary to what they claim or imply, light rail is not light (light-rail cars weigh more than heavy-rail cars), it’s not high-capacity transit (buses can move four times as many people in the same corridor), it’s not fast (averaging less than 20 mph), and it’s far from efficient.

Last November’s ballot measure, known as ST3, asked Seattle voters to agree to pay $54 billion in taxes to get 62 miles of light rail and a few new commuter trains. That’s an unbelievable amount of money for so little in return. Continue reading


Getting It Right

The modern escalator was perfected 96 years ago, so when someone is spending $625 million a mile on light rail (which technology is only 80 years old), you’d think they’d at least get the escalators right. Instead, “escalator failures have become a part of the daily routine” at Seattle’s University light-rail station.

If the system were brand new, you might say they were getting the bugs out. If it were old, you might say it was wearing out. Instead, it is not quite a year old, having opened on March 19, 2016. Despite that, they don’t work. To make matters worse, they came with a one-year warranty, which has expired because installation was completed before the station opened for business.

Seattle recently voted to have some of the highest taxes in the nation going for transit. If they aren’t spending an appropriate share of this money on functioning escalators, it makes you wonder where it is going instead.


Seattle Millennials Should Move to Houston

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer says it has found the best Seattle homes for Millennials. Judging by the paper’s suggestions, Seattle Millennials should move to Houston. Houston may not have Mt. Rainier, but it has beautiful lakes, a sea coast that is just about as nice as Washington’s (though not as nice as Oregon’s), and most important, it doesn’t have urban-growth boundaries which means it has much more affordable housing.

Click any photo to go to the listing for that property.

The P-I‘s first suggestion is a 720-square foot, two-bedroom, one-bath home on a 5,000-square-foot lot. On the plus side, the living room has hardwood floors. On the minus side, the asking price is $259,950–and if Seattle’s housing market is anything like Portland’s, it will go for more than that. At the asking price, the cost is $361 per square foot.

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A Mere $54 Billion for Light Rail

Seattle’s regional transit agency, Sound Transit, wants voters to approve a tax increase so it can spend another $54 billion on new light-rail lines. The agency’s first light-rail line went 86 percent over its original projections, but the agency assures the public that it has realized that voters are so innumerate that it no longer needs to low-ball the cost estimates in order to get tax increases approved.

To promote its plan, the agency has hired Peter “Paint Is Cheaper Than Rails” Rogoff to run the agency and get federal grants. Rogoff argued in 2010 that buses can attract as many riders as trains, and that “Bus Rapid Transit is a fine fit for a lot more communities than are seriously considering it.” Of course, he must believe that rail makes more sense than buses for Seattle, or he wouldn’t have taken this $298,000 per year job (a $118,000 increase over his previous job), right?

Seattle’s first light-rail line cost $3.1 billion in 1995 dollars, or $4.8 billion in today’s dollars for about 20 miles, for an average cost of $240 million a mile. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, out of nearly 1.6 million commuters, a respectable 160,000 took the bus to work in the Seattle urban area in 2014 but fewer than 3,000 took light rail while another 7,500 took commuter rail or streetcars to work. It’s possible that some survey respondents were confused and marked streetcar or commuter rail when they meant light rail, but it is still an insignificant number.

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More Obsolete Than Ever

Bryan Mistele, the CEO of traffic tracker Inrix, argues in the Seattle Times that proposed new light-rail lines will be “obsolete before they are built.” Specifically, he says, automated, connected, electric, and shared vehicles–which he abbreviates as ACES–are already changing how people travel, and those changes are accelerating.

Sound Transit, Seattle’s regional rail transit agency, wants voters to approve a $54 billion ballot measure this November for more light rail. This, Mistele points out, is more than twice the cost of the Panama Canal expansion, yet isn’t likely to produce any significant benefits.

A rail advocate named Joe responds in the Seattle Weekly by calling self-driving cars “snake oil” similar to predictions in the 1950s that supposedly said everyone would be flying around in helicopters. Joe betrays ignorance about traffic, suggesting that a freeway that is congested with stop-and-go traffic could not possibly support any more cars even if they were self-driving. In fact, a road with stop-and-go traffic can move only half as many cars per hour as one with free-flowing traffic, and free-flowing traffic spaces cars six or seven car-lengths apart. Self-driving cars could easily beat that.

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The Antiplanner’s Law of Housing Affordability

Growth management not only makes housing more expensive, it makes housing prices more volatile. So, even though the American economy isn’t exactly booming, growth in some parts of the country is sending housing prices upwards, and housing affordability has become a battlecry in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, and many other cities.

Unfortunately, it is usually the battlecry of advocates of the wrong policies. San Francisco’s affordability crisis has led to a blame game, with some blaming high housing costs on anti-development progressives (which is partly true) while other say they are solely due to due to demand, not supply (which is completely wrong). Proposed solutions include increased rent controls and inclusionary zoning, both of which would make housing less affordable in the long run.

In Seattle, someone noticed that developers were tearing down $400,000 bungalows in order to build three $600,000 condos and came to the wrong-headed conclusion that housing could be made more affordable by saving the bungalows. Yes, $400,000 is less than $600,000, but if you don’t increase the supply of houses, overall affordability will decline.

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Next week, Anaheim California will open the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, which is a grammatically contorted and glorified way of saying “Anaheim train and bus station.” A recent article suggests that some people think the station is an architectural monstrosity, but the real question that should have been debated is cost: was it really worth $185 million to build a train and bus station?

All this could be yours for a mere $2,784 per square foot. Click image for a larger view.

At 67,000 square feet. the station’s cost works out to an incredible $2,764 per square foot. Can you imagine any private firm spending that kind of money on a building to serve even the most profitable business, much less a money-losing one?

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