Sunday, June 22, 2008


I hear that there is talk that the City Council is considering putting several traffic lights on Aurora Ave. (For those of you not living in-or-near Seattle, Aurora Ave is the old Highway 99 going through the city from north-to-south; it moves some 50,000 cars and trucks and is an important transportation corridor and an alternative to the Interstate 5 that alsom goes through the city from north-to-south. In most places, the two roads parrarel each other about two miles apart.) The idea is to put three or four traffic lights to allow east-to-west traffic to cross Aurora at the north end of downtown. Presently, Aurora is six lanes, three in each direction with a continuous Jersey barrier that precludes any cross traffic for about six miles north of downtown (within downtown and for about three miles to the south, Aurora/Highway 99 is either in a tunnel, elevated or next to railroad yards and cannot be crossed.)

In the north end of this uncrossable highway are several convoluted and barely functional underpasses but you can get across. But it is clumsy and bad transportation planning.

Traffic lights will only make it worse.

Suddenly, you have stopping where you once had unimpeded travel.

Worse than that, you have accidents. Pedestrians will be hit, cars will want to make left turns --and they will, with and without the light--and it will be an unholy mess.

Why is this even being considered? Vulcan Industries owns some sixty-five acres in the area around these proposed traffic lights. (And again, for my beloved reader who does not live in Seattle) Who owns Vulcan Industries? Paul Allen.

Allen has somehow come under the sway of some transit/transportation guru who is all 'gu' and no 'ru'. This is transportation planning by someone struck somewhere between "Meet Me In St Louis" and the beginning of World War II.

Allen pushed for--and got--a streetcar put through his area. It is one mile long. It cost $52 million to build. It is going to cost $20 million to run--per year. They say that it is moving 1,000 people a day, but it is more likely half of that (in order to make the numbers look better, I am guessing that Allen and Co. are buying tickets).

This traffic light idea goes against every modern transportation planning idea. And common sense.

What is needed is one more underpass.

Get out your Seattle maps and bring up the area between Denny Way on the south, Galer Street on the north, Interstate 5 on the east and Queen Anne Ave on the west.

Many of the people going from the Queen Anne area going to the Interstate 5--both northbound and southbound--are using Mercer Street (Allen wants to screw this up but though the City Council voted to spend $42 million studying the idea, it is so stupid, it won't happen). The drivers going from Interstate 5 heading west to Queen Anne have to exit, turn north for two hundred feet, turn west onto a two-way road, go through four traffic lights (two are new because of the new Allen insisted streetcar), then travel diagonally southwesterly for about five blocks (under Aurora Ave/Highway 99) and emerge for two more right turns. Finally, go five blocks north (back to about where you started) and turn west to go to Queen Anne.

Or you could build a tunnel under Aurora/Highway 99 at Valley Street and skip the second half of the above paragraph.

But the traffic light idea is even more stupid than the Experience Music Project, another Allen fiasco. It disrupts traffic flow, causes accidents and generally stinks.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Most Important Part

The City and State are going to 'fix' the Spokane Street Viaduct.

The Spokane Street Viaduct has 80,000 cars, trucks and buses on it every day. In Technical Traffic Expert Talk that is 'a lot'. The elevated four lane roadway goes about a long mile (that is more TTET for 'a little bit more than a mile') and connects the West Seattle Bridge and the Interstate 5. There are several on-and-off ramps including an important connection to northbound Highway 99 (but sadly, no connection by ramp to southbound Highway 99). It is one busy highway that gets clogged at both ends as the Viaduct approaches Interstate 5.

And here is where it goes right off the rails into la-la land. While the City and State are going to 'fix the viaduct', they are planning to do nothing about the ramps at either end. The ramps are the problem! But because that would both cost more and be very difficult, the City and State are going to do nothing about that part of the problem.

In point of fact, the ramps are the problem. The Viaduct works OK; traffic gets through but it jams up at the ramps. (The Viaduct used to be the "Most Dangerous Mile in the State". Cars and trucks crossed the center line and collided with appalling regularity. There was no room for the usual concrete Jersey barrier. The State went out and found new better-designed concrete barriers that would fit and-- voila!--no more fatal accidents.)

This has the odor of 'doing something just to say that we are doing something'. Which would not be so bad if the cost wasn't over $150 million+.

What you need is someone with the guts to stand up and say, 'we'll do something when we have a plan that is going to actually solve the problem and then only when we have the money to do the job completely'. And voters that will respect that.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Wrong again; wrong still

The trouble with analogies is that sometimes they sound right, but they aren't quite right--and their wrongness is not just a little wrong, but entirely wrong.

A medical virus is not 'just like bacteria'. Treating a virus like a bacteria means that you will never cure yourself of the virus.

The WDOT held a contest: they needed a slogan to explain congestion. Secretary McDonald put up a thousand dollars of his own money as a reward for the winning slogan.

(We are not here to discuss the idiotcy of a Department of Transportation thinking that they need another slogan, explaination or other literary effort to provide better transportation. A slogan never unclogged a road, an explaination never floated a ferry or move people and goods from here to there. Worse, no one complained that they should get on to the job at hand and stop bureaucratically masterbating.)

The winning explaination is to demonstrate how congestion happens by pouring sand through a funnel. If you try to pour the sand all-at-once through the funnel, it becomes clogged; but if you pour it steadily, consistently, all of the sand will pour through the funnel easily.

Fine but wrong. Maybe as far as it goes, it is a good analogy, but like all failed analogies, it crumbles when you add a bit of reality to it. Then it folds faster than a Paul Allen committment to low-income housing.

Particles of sand-singularly or collectively--are like cars only in that they represent lots of individual things; they are unlike cars in that they cannot stop. Sand does not break down, get into accidents, run out of gas or blow a tire. But cars and trucks do. And that, not their attempt to get through the narrow end of a funnel, is the largest cause of traffic congestion. Long-time readers of this blog--both of them--know this.

I was sitting here thinking of how you can repair this analogy: "Have the funnel have six side-by-side mouths...." No, then it isn't really a funnel. "Imagine a bowling alley; if the ball goes into the gutter, the next lane......" No, too stupid, even for me.

The best way to understand traffic is to listen to the traffic reports on the radio. "Traffic is moving well because there are no major accidents....." Or, "Let's get right to the biggest problem: I-90 is a parking lot headed east because of an accident that occurred near the Mercer Island end...."

Monday, March 3, 2008

520 Redone (and done again)

The Governor has asked the State Department of Transportation to look at ways to save money and shave time off of the construction of the replacement for the 520.

They did. It will now be done in 2016 and cost only 3.47 billion.

Neither of these targets will be met and no one believes that they will. Why should they? The light rail is a six years behind schedule, a billion dollars over budget and not one person has been fired for that. The light rail station at SeaTac* just got a $20 million over-run and not one person suggested that they take the contract away from the construction firm involved, refuse to pay anything more on what they have done and go get another construction firm to finish the project. (Sure, you still have to pay the $20 million, but maybe the next contract you give out to a construction firm will be finished on-time and on-budget.)

The argument is that 'this is always the way it is'; it doesn't have to be. Two examples in this state serve to illustrate what can--and should--happen:

The Kingdome construction contract was handed to Drake Brothers Construction of Portland. About halfway through the construction, Drake announced that the design was flawed and it couldn't be built. They simply walked away from the job--though they were merely looking for more money. Another bunch was brought in and they completed the job. The County went after Drake and their bonding company (when you build Big Things, it's smart to require a bond so that they finish the job). The County and the county taxpayers won and they got millions from the bonding company. The Kingdome was completed. Not perfectly, a little over budget and probably, not entirely on-time but close on all counts. Better than Sound Transit and most other projects around here.

Closer to home, the I-90 replacement bridge was done--not on-time but a full year early on a two year schedule. And on-budget. The secret? The State Department of Transportation offered the firm $10,000 in bonuses for every day that the bridge came on-board early. The maximum number of days that they could finish early was one year on a two year contract. You guessed it: they came in exactly one year early and got a $3.67 million bonus. This $3.67 million was their profit; they bid the project at cost.

If memory serves, the replacement I-90 bridge cost about $130 million. Why in the world is the 520 coming in at $3 billion plus?

*Actually, the light rail station is over 1,000 feet from the nearest door to the concourse (and any thought that they can build a moving sidewalk from the station to the concourse is bogus; the garage is seven feet high and the minimum needed is nine feet of clearance.) Hope you like schlepping luggage through a dark and short garage. Of course, the light rail to the airport--near the airport--was never intended for passengers. It is for the 10,000 mostly minimum wage employees who the people who run the airport do not want taking up valuable parking.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Poker and the 520 Bridge (bluffing won't get it done)

In poker, smart players look for ‘tells’ in their opponents. It can be as subtle as putting down the cards front edge first when you have a good hand, to yelling “Whoopee! I have three aces!” “Tells” can let you know what is really going on.

The 520 Bridge is not going to sink or fail and the state has given us abundant tells that let us know that this is the case. Either that or they are even more stupid than I thought possible.

If the state thought there was a likely chance that the bridge might sink, they would install a set of railroad crossing arms and some warning lights at both approaches. If the bridge sank, the arms would come down and prevent anyone from continuing on to the bridge deck. But they haven’t installed them. And they won’t. In fact, if they really thought it was even possible, they would string an electrical wire the length of the bridge; if the structure broke, the wire would break and the railroad crossing arms would come down.

When it became clear that the ferries on the Port Townsend/Keystone run were seriously dangerous, the Governor stepped in and shut them down. But the 520 Bridge is business as usual because there is very little chance of it sinking.

The state isn’t even doing anything about the bridge safety. There aren’t even rubber floatation bumpers around the piers even though a tugboat hit one of the concrete posts years ago. They could fill the hollow piers with concrete, substantially improving their strength, but they do not. Even something as simple as installing more and better lights on and around the piers isn’t being done.

And if the state really wanted to do something about the 520 Bridge, they would go out and buy a bunch of concrete floats like the kind that are used for marina docks. They would put a string of these floats tied together with some room in between each one and place this floating breakwater off of the sides of the existing bridge. They could be attached to the anchor cables that go from the bridge to the huge concrete anchors on the bottom of the lake. This floating breakwater would prevent the waves from splashing up against the bridge. Currently, the floating bridges bow twenty-two inches in the biggest storms. This flexing out and then snapping back is the worst thing happening to the structures. But the state does nothing to mitigate the damage. It can be done for a lot less than $4 billion.

Which brings up another interesting question: if we could build the replacement I-90 bridge for under $200 million, how come this replacement is going to cost $4 billion?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Sound Transit light rail segment to the airport will never work.

This fourteen mile piece of light rail is one of the worst designed, least thoughtful and just all around horrible transit projects ever conceived. Most transit projects have a few problems here and there; this mess has a major problem every mile.

It is supposed to ‘go to the airport’. It does not even do that. The station at the airport is, in fact, over 1,000 feet from the nearest concourse door and some people will have to walk over a half mile to access the airport from where the train lets them off. The port commissioners who run the airport had promised to install a moving sidewalk, but the path goes through the parking garage and the seven foot high headroom will not allow for a moving sidewalk to be built.

The light rail was never intended to move air travelers from the city to the airport; it was always designed to move employees of the airport—mostly very low paid employees—from parking lots to the airport. A major transit hub like the SeaTac International Airport has upwards of ten thousand employees. The airport management does not want these people parking in their garages, even if they could afford it. The garages are for the airline passengers and the parking fees are a good source of revenue. But the light rail train is not for airline passengers, it is for the employees of the airport.

The airport management is so confident that almost no airline passengers would be willing to schlep their bags and themselves the 1,200 feet average walk to the train station that they are planning to build a $400 million garage for car rentals off of the airport site, spend $17 million buying a fleet of buses and spending another $17 million a year operating the garage and bus fleet to ferry car renters from the concourse to the off-site parking garage rather than ask them to walk to the train and take it to a parking garage.

The train will leave the airport station and head to downtown Seattle, twelve miles as the crow flies, to the north. But instead, it heads due east for some five miles to the southern end of the Rainier Valley. This was done to deliver service to the most economically disadvantaged parts of the city. This may have been done for admirable purposes, but it means that the train is scheduled to take fifty minutes to get from downtown to the airport and the real time will be more like sixty minutes and more. Part of this due to the fact that through most of the Valley, the train is running on the surface down the middle of the street. Nationwide, surface urban light rail moves at an average of 14 mph—one mph better than buses. Sound Transit will install fences on both sides of the track but that will not noticeably speed up the trains. Trains on the surface do not have to slow for the cars, buses and people who are literally in the way. Urban surface light rail must slow because there may be cars, buses and people in the way. If there is a car waiting at the traffic light, the operator of the light rail must slow, in case that car moves. Once the car actually moves from the intersection onto the tracks, it will probably be too late to begin slowing for the train. In fact, light rail has a terrible record for accidents. After all, trains do not stop very quickly and they cannot swerve at all.

Then, the train turns eastward and enters a tunnel under Beacon Hill. There is no rhyme or reason for this. Beacon Hill is misnamed; it more properly should have been named Beacon Ridge, for that is what it is. It is a five-to-seven mile long north-to-south ridge from near downtown Seattle to the south end of the city. It is steep, tall and sandy. It is lousy for tunnels. But that is where Sound Transit built a one mile long, three hundred feet deep tunnel. Which is a little strange since the ridge is only about a quarter mile wide. The planners actually had to make the tunnel diagonal to make it a mile long. And when it gets through the tunnel and to the other side, it arrives at the maintenance and storage yards. Here, the train turns ninety degrees and heads north into the city. Now, there is a perfectly feasible and available route around the north end of Beacon Hill which would lead the train right into the downtown. This route would necessitate the building of a spur line from downtown to the storage and maintenance yard of about three miles in length, but that is a lot less expensive than a one mile, very deep tunnel through sandy soil.

But that is not the worst of it. They saved the worst for last.

While the nearly the entire route, design and building of the fourteen mile Sound Transit light rail train is flawed, the truly horrifying part is the attempt to convert the Downtown Bus Tunnel into a bus-and-light-rail combined tunnel.

Back in 1983, the city of Seattle, with substantial help from the federal government, built a one-mile tunnel under the downtown streets to accommodate buses and eventually, light rail trains.

The premise of the tunnel was that buses, by being separated from the hustle and bustle of traffic, could come off of the freeway and go into the tunnel where five stops within the one mile underground would free the buses to move quickly and efficiently through the downtown core.

Nice theory. In practice, much was left to be desired:

--There was no way to build a simple straight ramp from the tunnel to the freeway and vice versa. At certain times of the day, from the north, the buses had five traffic lights between the off ramp and the tunnel.

--Because of the noise of the diesel engines, the buses had to ‘switch’ to overhead electric wires. Thus, the bus that went in the tunnel had two propulsion systems, they weighed more than any other vehicle on the road (over 100,000 pounds), and they had twice as many breakdowns as other buses. They were built by an Italian company that promptly went out of business. Replacements were impossible, spare parts scarce and technical help non-existent.

--The pedestrian route from the front of the bus to the sidewalk upstairs was, for a number of reasons, almost never a ‘straight shot’. The average time for an average person to get from upstairs down to the bus or vice versa was three minutes. In some stations, it took nearly five minutes to get from the station platform to the outside.

--Recently, while converting the downtown tunnel to light rail use, the buses were rerouted to the surface streets above. Third Avenue was effectively converted to a transit mall during rush hour. The buses using this transit mall were able to get through the one mile of downtown three minutes faster than the buses that had previously used the tunnel.

--And worst of all, the train tracks were installed incorrectly. They simply neglected to ‘ground’ the rails. Stray electrical current from the eventual operation of the trains would seek out the path of least resistance. This path of least resistance would be the rebar steel reinforcing in the surrounding concrete and would corrode that steel until it was weak and worthless.

This final mistake meant that when the light rail came, the track had to be ripped up and replaced (and since it was imbedded in concrete, that surrounding concrete had to be ripped up and replaced).

Now the track has been replaced and Sound Transit says that they will open the rail line including the bus/rail tunnel under the downtown in 2009.

--Sound Transit’s new light rail vehicles have a higher floor than the buses that had previously used the tunnel. They were faced with a choice of raising the platforms or lowering the floor. Though the cost for lowering the rail bed at the bottom of the tunnel was more, the board followed the recommendation of the staff and opted to dig out the bottom of the station floors.

Tunnels are not static structures. The circle of a tunnel is a series of stresses playing dynamically on one another. One cannot simply cut a substantial piece out of a circular tunnel and expect all to be well. Some on the staff warned of possible collapse if the bottom were cut out of the stations. They chose to ignore these warnings and proceed with lowering the floors of all of the stations.

But they have even worse problems in the tunnel and these are insurmountable.

Midway in the tunnel is a ninety degree turn under the intersection of Third Avenue and Pine Street. The tunnel route goes from east-to-west and turns to travel north-to-south. The buses, about sixty-five feet long, had a bit of trouble making this turn. The light rail vehicles are ninety feet long and each train consists of four of these cars. Sound Transit has a study from an engineer that says that they can make it. The engineer says that they have an inch or two clearance. They have pushed through one car, at three miles an hour. But four cars, going at normal speeds, will not consistently make this turn. They will scrape, hit and maybe jam in the tunnel. Maybe not the first day or even the first year, but someday, sometime, someone will go a little faster than posted, rock the train just an inch too far that way or this way and it won’t get through.

At best, they wreck a train. At worse, we don’t want to think about it.

As bad as that is, there is an even worse problem at the southern end of the bus/rail tunnel. Towards the southern portal, the tunnel goes under the freight tunnel built in 1905. The bus/rail tunnel heading south goes down a short but steep incline. The slope is 5.25 degrees, which means that it falls five-and-a-quarter feet for every hundred feet of horizontal distance. (The steepest non-cogged railroad in the world has a 5.5 degree slope.) Then it levels out for eighty-five feet and then continues up a short incline of 5.4 degrees. Sound Transit has also pushed a single car of ninety feet length through this stretch, again at three miles per hour. Again, it won’t be able to consistently get a four car train through at even reduced speed. Eventually, there will be a reckoning as Sound transit tries to force a square peg through the round hole of physics.

Neither of these problems is solvable. There is no way that the bus/rail downtown tunnel will be able to handle the new light rail train. At best, this will be obvious. At worst, it will be catastrophic. Knowing Sound Transit, I hope for the best and expect the worst. There will be a day when the train becomes a train wreck, wedged deep in the tunnel, underground and fatal.

When that happens, I would hope that the entire board of the Sound Transit resigns. They have been warned by better than me that this project was misdesigned, mismanaged and badly built. They should have done due diligence to avoid problems that will come their way. They should have taken care that things were done right. Instead, they ignored the warnings, turned a blind eye to the obvious and relied on staff recommendations—from a staff with a proven record of failure. They should resign as a matter of course. Then, they should resign from further public service, for they have shown that theirs’ is no service at all but a failure to meet even the minimum of standards. They should resign and hope to God that will be enough.