Last night, Mike Lindblom reported on the raging debate at the City Council over the money in the Mayor’s budget to study a streetcar on Eastlake:
Mayor Mike McGinn’s budget proposal for a $2 million streetcar planning study in the Eastlake corridor is running into resistance from the City Council. […]
Tom Rasmussen, chairman of the Transportation Committee, said Tuesday he’s not convinced Eastlake rail is urgent, as the nearby University of Washington will get light-rail stations in 2016 and 2021.
Let’s unpack this a little bit.
Eastlake is a pretty small place, about 4,000 residents in a quarter-mile strip of dense low-rise residential and light industrial, bracketed by the immovable and largely impermeable boundaries of Lake Union and I-5. While most of its local bus and trolleybus* service (66 and 70 in the daytime; 66 and 71/72/73 in the evening) suffers overcrowding at times, that’s primarily due to the terrible design of Metro’s U-District trunk routes (71/72/73), which take over local Eastlake service from the 70 in the early evenings, at a time when those routes are still overwhelmed with riders making longer trips — and who couldn’t care less about access to Eastlake or South Lake Union. Similarly with the 66, most of the peak crowding, in my experience, is riders making longer trips to the U-District or Roosevelt. Partly as a result of service duplication between the 66 and 70, and partly because there’s just not that many people in Eastlake, both routes consistently show up in the bottom third of Metro’s performance reports.
Now, people like trains, and, compared to an otherwise identical local bus service, slightly more people will ride them. But there’s no plausible way that rail bias can get you from two mediocre-to-middling bus routes running at 15- to 30-minute headways to a well-used streetcar (with twice the capacity per vehicle) at 15-minute headways (or better), and any claims to the contrary should be regarded askance. A streetcar service might be slightly faster and more reliable than an improved trolleybus service, which would induce a little more demand, but there’s not enough room on Eastlake for a Link-style exclusive right of way to significantly boost speeds, and vehicle congestion is usually not chronic on Eastlake anyway.
Most of the speed and reliability problems riders experience in this area are due to the (unrelated) overcrowding discussed above, traffic signal delay, or buses having to pull back out in to traffic from behind parked cars. The latter two problems can be addressed with bus bulbs or islands (think SDOT’s treatment of Dexter) and transit signal priority (just like a streetcar), and the crowding will, even if Metro completely fails to ever restructure the Eastlake corridor, partially go away with the opening of University Link, and disappear completely with the opening of North Link. In less than two years, Metro will start to take delivery of low-floor trolleybuses, potentially with passive wheelchair restraint, which will provide faster, almost-level boarding — more akin to a streetcar than the high-floor buses that ply the route today.
I’m convinced it’s realistically possible to provide fast, frequent and reliable trolleybus service which will meet the needs of Eastlake riders, with minor capital improvements to bus facilities, and a budget-neutral rationalization of the bus service on the corridor. For those reasons, I’m with Erica on the Eastlake streetcar’s lack of merit as compared to other projects in the TMP; I’d rather spend these extremely scarce funds on figuring out how best to build rail to a place like Ballard, which really needs it, or on the Madison rapid trolleybus corridor.
But I didn’t just come here to make friends by rubbishing both the Eastlake streetcar proposal and Metro’s current lousy service. Here’s the real kicker in Lindblom’s piece:
Rasmussen supports an amendment, drafted Tuesday, to delay a two-year Eastlake study to 2014 and to shift $1 million next year to help buses citywide.
“I see crowded buses, hear the complaints of people on the bus rides,” he said, recounting his own trip recently on a packed bus to Harborview Medical Center.
It’s funny that Council Member Rasmussen should mention overcrowding on Harborview buses. He was presumably referring to the hopelessly overloaded 3/4 trolleybuses on James Street, which form part of the Queen Anne-Madrona corridor. Metro proposed, but then abandoned, a budget-neutral restructure concept which would have improved service on James Street to Harborview to run every 5 minutes during peak periods, and made the service dramatically simpler and more comprehensible. Shortly thereafter, Metro abandoned a similarly meritorious structure concept in Magnolia.
Then, a few weeks ago, Metro dismissed the RapidRide E Sounding Board, stating that no restructure of north-central Seattle would be required to implement the E Line next year. Implementing the E Line will require a pretty substantial injection of new service hours, to bring the 358 (which currently only runs every 20 minutes on Sundays and every 30 minutes in the evening) up to RapidRide service standards (which stipulate 15-minute headways until 10 PM every day). In response to my questions about how this was achieved without improving efficiency in north-central Seattle, I was told only that this additional money came from the “operations budget”, whatever that means.
The obvious takeaway from all this is that whatever Metro is hurting for, it’s apparently not money in the operations budget, nor a lack of possibilities to improve service. I submit to CM Rasmussen that he should put away the checkbook and pick up the phone, and ask Metro about the seeming lack of urgency in rearranging Metro’s buses to put them where they are needed most. Throwing a million dollars in operations money over the fence fails to address Metro’s structural financial problems (lack of long-term funding and over-dependence on the volatile sales tax), while disincentivizing necessary bus network improvements.
Whatever the Council does with the Eastlake money, the one thing it clearly shouldn’t do is blow it on next year’s bus service. While the more I contemplate the Eastlake streetcar the less sense it makes, the basic premise of the TMP, that Seattle desperately needs to spend money improving the quality (i.e. speed, reliability) of transit service rather than just indiscriminately increasing the quantity is a good one. There is inevitably a tradeoff between benefiting tomorrow’s transit riders versus today’s transit riders (and, for that matter, tomorrow’s bicyclists and pedestrians), and there’s no doubt today’s transit riders are hurting, but with our city growing steadily, we need to stop spending on transit service and start investing in smart, cost-effective ways to make it scale up to the increased demand.
* The 70 is currently dieselized due to the Mercer East Project construction, but should return to trolleybus service early next year.