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.