520 widening project should bring relief to Redmond

Crews are widening SR 520 between SR 202 and West Lake Sammamish Parkway in Redmond by adding a merge lane and HOV lane in each direction. The installation of the girders, which are huge support beams, for the SR 520 overpass at SR 202 took place on Monday, Aug. 24.

Crews are widening SR 520 between SR 202 and West Lake Sammamish Parkway in Redmond by adding a merge lane and HOV lane in each direction. The installation of the girders, which are huge support beams, for the SR 520 overpass at SR 202 took place on Monday, Aug. 24.

By Mary Stevens Decker
Reporter Newspapers
While construction zones can be noisy and messy, most drivers recognize that the end result, an easier commute, will make the hassle worthwhile.
That’s certainly the case for the SR 520 widening project in Redmond, between West Lake Sammamish Parkway and SR 202.
“Residents remind me that it is about time the project moves forward,” said Redmond Mayor John Marchione. “People are especially happy that the city and state are cooperatively moving Bear Creek away from 520 to improve the fish habitat.”

Don Cairns

Don Cairns

City of Redmond transportation services manager Don Cairns stated, “The first phase, the flyover from Redmond Way to westbound 520, has received a lot of positive feedback since being completed last year.”
City officials are confident that the completion of the SR 520 project will benefit Redmond residents and workers because, “SR 520 is the city’s preferred route for people who want to bypass Redmond altogether,” said Marchione. “This will benefit those who live and work in Downtown, Southeast Redmond and Education Hill and those who want to do business in these same neighborhoods.”
Bruce Newman, traffic signal operations engineer for the City of Redmond, explained that other benefits include “additional capacity in the morning. Much of the existing bottleneck in the morning is due to the two southbound lanes merging to one on the bridge over Redmond Way. This causes traffic to back up to Union Hill Road and on Avondale Road and reduces the efficiency of the signalized intersection.”
Also, said Newman, “Additional capacity in the afternoon. Currently, the signalized intersection at Avondale Road/Union Hill Road cannot operate efficiently because only one lane exists on SR 520 over Redmond Way. When the signal crossing on Union Hill turns green, the two lanes that continue to Avondale Road can move traffic efficiently only for about 50 seconds. Thereafter, other cars stuck on SR 520 before Redmond Way can only approach one at a time, so further green time is moving fewer vehicles.”
Plus, Newman added, “Extension of the HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) network will reduce delays for carpoolers and especially for transit to/from the Bear Creek Park and Ride. There used to be two bottlenecks: the Union Hill intersection and the single lane over Redmond Way. The City of Redmond project completed this past spring increased capacity at the signalized intersection. The WSDOT project will increase capacity on SR 520, helping both the morning and afternoon commutes. Congestion will remain, however, since an arterial at the end of a freeway can never carry as much traffic as the freeway.”
The improvements in Redmond are having a regional ripple effect — and the ripple is good, according to Marchione.
He said, “Residents of Sammamish and Duvall have reported tremendous savings in their commute times since the flyover ramp opened. I have noticed that traffic flows better in those intersections near Redmond Way and 520. We are steadily making improvements.”
Newman concurred, “The SR 202 widening in conjunction with the flyover has dramatically improved capacity on the SR 202 corridor.”
That said, SR 202 has been adversely impacted this summer by some back-ups due to closures on Union Hill Road (a King County project), East Lake Sammamish Parkway (a City of Sammamish project) and even the Interstate 90 closure in July.
What are the next traffic and transportation challenges in the East Redmond corridor that also affects commuters from Sammamish, Duvall and Woodinville?
Marchione said improvements will include King County extending 196th Avenue Northeast from Novelty Hill Road to Union Hill Road and improving Union Hill Road, while the city will be extending 188th and 185th Avenues Northeast to Union Hill Road.
“The more of a street grid we have in place, the better people and goods can move to their destinations,” he predicted.
Cairns said the city was completing a comprehensive transportation study of Southeast Redmond that includes Avondale Road and the area of Redmond north and east of SR 520.
“That study is focused on needs in 2030, the ultimate set of improvements needed for the study area and a recommendation of a near term action plan for the next three to six years.”
Mary Stevens Decker is a reporter for the Redmond Reporter. She can be contacted at mdecker@redmond-reporter.com


Improving Rainier Avenue is a top priority for Renton

The railroad bridge over Rainier Avenue was removed in the summer of 2007 so that the city of Renton and its partners can rebuild the major thoroughfare to make it safer and improve access to local businesses.

The railroad bridge over Rainier Avenue was removed in the summer of 2007 so that the city of Renton and its partners can rebuild the major thoroughfare to make it safer and improve access to local businesses.

By Dean A. Radford
Reporter Newspapers
Rainier Avenue through the heart of Renton is a work in progress.
It’s the city’s transportation workhorse, handling about 50,000 vehicle trips a day. That rivals the traffic load of such major commercial thoroughfares as Aurora Avenue in north Seattle.
And Rainier, a state highway, can easily get congested, especially at its intersection with Grady Way. Congestion on Rainier, acting like fast-flowing river, in turn forces backups on smaller city streets that flow into it.
To do something about the Rainier corridor through downtown is a top transportation priority for the city of Renton.
Even the construction the state is doing on Interstate 405, including the new onramp and offramp for Talbot Road, is partly intended to divert traffic away from Rainier, which is the continuation of State Route 167 – the Valley Freeway – until it reaches South Second Street.
A major step was taken in 2007 when Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway removed three railroad bridges through downtown and replaced them with wider ones, including one over Rainier Avenue, in financial cooperation with the city.
The wider bridge at Rainier was critical to making the highway a tree-lined thoroughfare that has safer and easier access to local businesses and allows transit buses to move quickly through the corridor. The bridge constricted traffic’s flow and was a bit unnerving.
Pedestrians will find a much friendlier atmosphere to traverse, with trees and wider sidewalks.
Now comes the rest of the roughly $40 million city transportation project, the largest in Renton’s history. That about doubles the money needed to improve the streets around a new development in north Renton, The Landing.
About 30 percent of the project is designed, according to Bob Hanson, the city’s transportation design supervisor. The project runs from South Grady Way to South Second Street.
At the same time, the city is talking with the owners of 57 properties on both sides of the Rainier corridor about purchasing the land – the right of way – necessary to expand the corridor, which will include new sidewalks and a dedicated lane in each direction for business access.
It’s possible a business might have to relocate to make way for the project. Nothing is certain, Hanson said, because new options often arise during the negotiations.
The city was expecting to make offers to buy the rights of way – at market value – late this month, he said.
The construction cost alone of the Rainier improvements is estimated at just over $15 million, according to Hanson, which doesn’t including replacing the railroad bridge over Rainier.
It’s too early to pin down the total cost of the project, in part because the agreements to purchase the right of way haven’t been finalized. The project’s design is continuing and the city is planning additional meetings soon with the public and local businesses to get community input, Hanson said.
But preliminary estimates for all improvements to Rainier, including the removal of the bridges, is the roughly $40 million. The money is coming from the city of Renton, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, the state, the federal government and Sound Transit.
Sound Transit is providing $14.9 million because the two lanes being added in both directions in the project corridor are BAT lanes, or business access and transit lanes
Like it does with other construction projects, the city will take into consideration public comments about the Rainier project design and then construction, Hanson said.
“It’s a give and take sort of thing,” Hanson said. The city is not “just going to tell them what will happen,” he said.
What’s important to the city, Hansen said, is to maintain access to the many businesses along Rainier so their customers can get to them. There are few, if any environmental issues because the highway already exists and those issues have already been addressed.
“I would say the more critical issues in this are constructability and staging so that it has the least impact on the businesses,” said Hanson.
The general motoring public, including the big trucks that use Rainier to move goods to Renton Center and elsewhere in Renton, will have far safer access to businesses. Gone will be the uncontrolled left turns into driveways and parking lots that set up the potential for head-on collisions. Instead, drivers will use U-turns at intersections to return to the intended destination, making right-hand turns.
“That is far safer,” said Hanson.
Rainier Avenue will remain open during construction, which is expected to begin in late 2010 or early 2011. Some nighttime and weekend road closures could occur.
Construction should take about 18 months.
Dean A. Radford is editor of the Renton Reporter. He can be reached at editor@rentonreporter.com.

Kent Valley commuters face increasingly long drive time


By Steve Hunter
Reporter Newspapers
Rodney Watkins fights heavy traffic every weekday driving between his home on Kent’s East Hill and his job in South Seattle.
When Watkins leaves home as early as 5 a.m., he can cover the 21-mile drive to his job as a garbage hauler at Cleanscapes in about 30 minutes. But when he tries to return home at about 4 p.m. or so, the drive can take twice as long.
“Coming home is hell,” Watkins said. “When you get to Interstate 5 near Southcenter, no matter where you go there’s no fast way home.”
Watkins is one of the many Kent residents who tries to navigate through Kent streets between home and work.
“Everybody knows the shortcuts, so no matter what you’re screwed,” said Watkins, who has commuted 16 years to Seattle.
Kent city officials know drivers struggle to go north or south through the valley as well as between the valley and the East Hill and West Hill. The city has identified more than $600 million worth of proposed projects over the next 20 years to address traffic problems, and so far, no money to pay for them.
Watkins drives home via Highway 167 and up South 212th Street to 132nd Avenue Southeast, where he heads south toward home. Traveling up the South 212th Street hill to get to the Benson Highway, also known as 108th Avenue Southeast, remains a struggle.
“Once you get past the Benson, you’re fine,” Watkins said. “But it can be a nightmare getting up to the Benson.”
In the morning, Watkins leaves early so he can get onto Highway 167 at Central Avenue before the traffic signals for the onramps start up at about 5:15 a.m. or so.
“Once those start, traffic can back up on Central past Denny’s,” Watkins said, describing the restaurant near the highway entrance.
Watkins struck out on a fast route when he tried alternate roads besides the Kent hills of South 212th Street, James Street or Smith Street.
“There’s no good way to get around Kent,” he said. “I tried the Maple Valley Highway and it’s just as bad.”
Highway 18 can work from Kent’s East Hill to Federal Way or Tacoma. But no clear route exists between the East Hill and Seattle without traveling streets loaded with traffic signals.
“There is no good way to get to the east side of Kent,” Watkins said.
Watkins looked at commuting by bus, but found out that would take him nearly 90 minutes. And the Sounder train has too-limited a schedule for his job that doesn’t always end at a certain time. The new light rail runs from Tukwila to Seattle.
“You would still have to commute through Kent to get to the park and ride,” Watkins said.
Steve Hunter is a writer at the Kent Reporter. He can be reached at shunter@kentreporter.com.

Kent is epicenter of county shipping, but traffic snarls costly


By Brian Beckley
Reporter Newspapers
While commuters may lose time and their cool while sitting in traffic, for manufacturers and freight haulers, time spent stuck in traffic has a direct effect on the bottom line.
The Green River Valley manufacturing district, running from Renton to Sumner, accounts for more than 80,000 jobs in the region and helps make the Puget Sound area the second-largest freight and wholesale distribution center on the West Coast, behind only the Los Angeles-Long Beach area.
And at the center of it all is the city of Kent.
“We have businesses that serve every country on the globe that’s legal to trade with,” said Deputy Public Works Director Tim LaPorte. “And they’re all dependent on a system that’s never been completed.”
Kent’s location is the key to its manufacturing and shipping success. Located approximately halfway between the Port of Tacoma and the Port of Seattle, 10 minutes from Sea-Tac Airport and split by two major rail lines, Kent is prime territory for shippers.
Kent also is adjacent to Interstate 5 and is bisected by State Route 167.
“It’s that confluence of transportation corridors and strategic location that makes Kent an attractive place,” said Ben Wolters, the city of Kent’s economic development director.
Because of that, maintaining freight mobility is a prime concern for city officials.
“It’s one of our ongoing challenges,” Wolters said, adding the city’s warehouse and manufacturing business is a “mainstay of Kent’s economy.”
But getting all those tons of freight to the highways and out to the ports sometimes can be a challenge.
LaPorte said the biggest issue is getting trucks into and out of Kent, making the top freight-related priority in the city the completion of state Route 509, which LaPorte said was intended in the 1960s to serve as an additional route between Seattle and Tacoma.
However, though stretches of 509 extend in either direction from the two cities, the vast majority of the roadway remains unfinished.
“Unfortunately we only have either end,” LaPorte said. “If it was completed, it would allow freight to move virtually unimpeded from the Port of Seattle to points south and east.”
For Kent, as well as for commuters in and around the city, the highway would provide a route for trucks that would keep them off the major commuter roads, speeding traffic on the highways and getting the trucks to where they need to go quicker.
“A lot of freight traffic coming from the Port of Seattle and the airport doesn’t really want to get on I-5,” LaPorte said. “They want to get to the valley.”
LaPorte said 509 would connect at Kent-Des Moines Road and provide essentially another collector distributor lane for the interstate and would remove truck traffic from the highway by allowing direct access to Kent.
It would also take some pressure off some of Kent’s east-west routes. The traffic on some, such as 212th Street, is more than 12 percent trucks.
“That’s a very, very high number,” LaPorte said. “One in every 10 vehicles is a truck.
“(SR)509 will distribute the truck traffic more easily and allow them direct access to the valley,” he added.
But access at the north end of Kent’s warehouse area is not the only issue. There is a similar freight backup at the south end.
State Route 167 “also has a major problem at the south end because it doesn’t exist,” LaPorte said.
Calling it “the other end of our story,” LaPorte said SR 167 was designed to go through to the Port of Tacoma and connect to I-5, but the section from Sumner to Tacoma, like 509, has not been completed.
Another problem facing freight haulers in Kent is actually one of the city’s biggest strengths: the dual sets of railroad tracks that run through the center of the city.
More than 60 trains run through the valley every day and every time the crossing arms come down, drivers are losing time and money.
“We have over two-and-a-half hours of delay per day on a 24-hour average in the valley,” LaPorte said, calling the results a “disaster” for traffic. They are the biggest source of delay in the city in terms of traffic.”
“Which adds up to significant cost in terms of manpower and fuel,” Wolters added.
Because of this, Kent is heavily invested in reducing at-grade crossings by building overpasses or tunnels under the tracks as a way to help increase track speeds.
“The only way we can get increased track speeds is to make the rail corridor a safer corridor,” LaPorte said.
Crossing improvements are expensive – about $20 million each – so Kent has to do the work in small batches, cobbling together funding. The city’s Transportation Improvement Plan calls for the elimination of the city’s “worst five:” two on Willis Street, two on 212th Street and one on 228th Street.
In total, LaPorte estimated that $700 million would be needed to complete improvements at all at-grade crossings.
The lack of highway routes and the traffic on those routes also leads truck drivers to take alternate routes through cities, placing undue stress on roadways that were never designed for the weight and traffic of 18-wheelers.
“They fail much quicker than they should,” LaPorte said, leading to an increased burden on local taxpayers.
He noted all of the improvements were necessary not only to keep the region competitive, but also to improve the quality of life, as increased trucks sitting in traffic leads to pollution and dirtier air.
The problem, like most things, is money. Highway work is estimated at more than $1 billion for each project. For perspective, the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge was built for $750 million.
Both LaPorte and Wolters said Kent were “fans” of the trucks and freight that makes the city’s economy go, but the problems they face are not necessarily Kent-specific, but regional, and should be treated as such and that any transportation improvements – highways, rail, public transportation, light rail, anything – would be helpful to the city.
“We’re a fan of all of the above,” LaPorte said.
Brian Beckley is a writer at the Kent Reporter. He can be reached at bbeckley@kentreporter.com.

Kent: former farm town living through transportation growth pains


Laura Pierce
Reporter Newspapers
Kent is a thriving city of neighborhoods, retail and warehouses – and nowhere is that growth more apparent than a weekday rush hour.
Lines of commuters crawl along with caravans of freight trucks, while trains close down crossings across the city on two sets of tracks.
On the one hand you could say Kent has it all: listed in the top 10 neighborhoods of King County by Seattle Monthly this year for its entertainment and shopping venues. Considered an epicenter of Puget Sound freight commerce. Poised to become a regional banking center within the next decade.
But wending its way through all the good things about Kent is a transportation system that is not so good.
“Our transportation system is exactly that – a system,” said Ben Wolters, Kent’s economic development director. “It has a number of interactive components.”
Right now those components aren’t working very well together.
Wolters outlined the bigger issues: the conflict between rail and road traffic; lack of a better freight corridor forcing more trucks on roads better designed for smaller vehicles, growing congestion on the highways surrounding the city (the nearby intersection of state routes 405 and 167 is one of the most congested in the state) and the sheer quantity of people and goods moving in and out of the city.
Wolters noted the issue boils down to dollars.
“This speaks to the challenge of trying to fund transportation projects in Washington state,” he said. “That’s really why we’ve had these issues so long – we’ve not found a way to fund these long-term infrastructure needs.”
Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke described the former farming town as grappling with major growing pains.
“What is the biggest challenge is that the city of Kent was built as a small city,” she said. “It is now an urban center. We are a city with three hills, a river valley, two major rail lines and we are on the thoroughfare between two ports (Seattle and Tacoma.) We really do attract a mix of demands on our transportation system.
“It really strains a system or a network that was put in place to accommodate a small, rural town.”

What happened?
During the 1970s and 1980s, Kent’s economic growth, Wolters said, was “explosive.”
Thanks to plenty of raw, flat land in the valley, a friendly tax climate and a central location between the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, Kent was a beacon for freight interests, which helped it to evolve from farmland to an economic powerhouse.
“The focus in Kent on warehouse distribution that was established historically, was larger than in other cities,” Cooke said. “We have many more warehouses than other cities do.”
Thanks to the rail lines and the warehouse space, manufacturing interests also gravitated to the Kent Valley. And as these businesses have grown in Kent, so too have their employee bases.
In some respects, it’s a little too much of a good thing.
Last year, just before the recession hit, Kent was at 80,000 jobs, with a population that was nearly the same, Wolters said.
That 1:1 ratio, he added, “is actually much higher than what you often see in South County jurisdictions. It certainly puts us closer to Seattle and Bellevue in terms of jobs versus population.”
And through it all, runs a transportation system that has become increasingly overburdened, with fewer dollars to go into it.
Today, the city sees an estimated 250,000 car trips within its borders. The 70 or so trains that go through the city each day close down traffic on city streets an average of 2.5 hours each day.
“The economic growth has outgrown the pace we’ve had for transportation improvements,” Wolters said. In South King County, “we’re by far the largest,” he adding, noting Kent saw “well over $7.5 billion dollars in gross business activity.”
Cooke noted one recent economic change – thanks to the state – that has actually hurt the city having so much warehouse and freight-related space.
It used to be that every time a product was ordered from a warehouse, the city in which that warehouse was located would receive sales-tax proceeds on the transaction. But under the streamlined sales tax, which the state enacted in 2008, the sales tax now goes to the city where the sale occurred, as opposed to where the item was being shipped from.
While warehouse cities like Kent do get some mitigation funding from the state to balance out that change, Cooke said it isn’t nearly what the city used to get under the old system.
“We’ve now lost close to $4 million a year from streamlined sales tax,” Cooke said, adding that amount is somewhat lessened with state mitigation funds.
But road maintenance – especially that pertaining to the quantity of trucking traffic here – continues, meaning fewer dollars that can be pumped into transportation needs.
Another major issue that Kent – as well as other Puget Sound cities must contend – is how to fix roads in places where there simply isn’t revenue coming in – such as neighborhoods.
“When we don’t have new development, who picks up the tab?” Cooke asked, noting the city’s quantity of older, established neighborhoods (which contribute to Kent’s quality of life) that are in need of things like curbs, gutters or sidewalks. Of city road maintenance, she noted, “it is a constant cycle.”

Kent, as well as the rest of the Puget Sound area, won’t be able to escape the increasing growth. But there are things that will ease its continued transition from small town to big city.
Describing a Puget Sound population that is expected to grow to 1.5 million in the next 30 years, “Kent’s population is expected to grow with the rest of the region,” said King County Councilwoman Julia Patterson, whose district includes Kent. “We have to find a revenue source (for transportation) that goes beyond the gas tax.
“More and more we’re seeing hybrids on the roads, and in the next couple of years, we’ll be seeing electric cars. Those people are not paying the same to use the roads as those of us running exclusively on gasoline.
“I think the tolling is coming; I think the question is the matter of degree.”
Alternative modes of transportation also would go a long way in offsetting the continued growth of commuter traffic coming out of Kent.
“Fixed rail will become more popular, because it is the most dependable,” Patterson said. “You know that even if it starts to snow at 4 p.m., you’ll be at the station the same time as if it were July.”
Cooke agreed that other modes of transportation for commuters are part of Kent’s future.
“Our roads are reaching a point where we can’t afford to have everybody using a car,” Cooke said.
But she added those other modes of transportation, especially in the case of buses, will become more accepted as they increase their frequency of runs, as well as ease of use.
“I think it’s really a chicken-and-egg issue,” Cooke said. “I think people would use those options if they were more consistent. We’ve been increasing the amount of certain (bus) routes in Kent, but there is a maximum elasticity on how long someone’s going to wait. And then there is the knowledge about how to use a bus. It’s just that the system is foreign to people. It needs frequency; it needs outreach.”
As far as freight traffic, the problem is more regional in nature.
State Route 509, envisioned in the 1960s as a freight corridor between Seattle and Tacoma, remains unfinished. Its completion could mean a major incentive for freight traffic coming through Kent.
“It’s on the radar,” Patterson said, noting there is a working group that continues to meet on the project. “It’s ready to go. All the environmental review is done and the permitting. It will take a commitment from the state to fund it.”
Rail crossings are another major part of the picture to continued freight mobility in Kent. In fact, Wolters said the crossings are one of Kent’s highest priority traffic issues, in his book.
“Our greatest issues are conflict between rail and road traffic,” he said.
But it’s going to take dollars to do the work, as well as the ongoing need to maintain city streets and increase capacity. Wolters said the city considering several options for revenue, including traffic-impact fees, and the possibility of forming what he called “transportation utilities.”
And as difficult as Kent’s transportation picture has become, Wolters pointed out a major bright spot.
The city may have congestion, but “I’d rather have that problem than the problem of empty roads because there is no economic activity going on,” he said. “We all live with it. We all commute to work, whether it’s by car or bicycle or train. We all at moments have expressed our frustration, but we’re also very pleased to be able to get to a job. It’s a balancing act.”
Laura Pierce is Editor of the Kent Reporter. She can be contacted at editor@kentreporter.com.

Steve Cotton: He sees Kent freight issues up close and personal


By Brian Beckley
Reporter Newspapers
Steve Cotton, operations manager for KGM Motorcycle Transport in Kent, has the same complaints as most drivers in the Kent Valley: traffic and trains.
But for Cotton and his business, which does the storage, transportation and final assembly for all of the motorcycle dealers in Washington, time is money.
“It seems like every time you turn around there’s a train going through here,” Cotton said, estimating that each train – 60 per day, according to the city – costs his drivers on average of 15 minutes.
And with five trucking companies located on his road in Kent’s warehouse district, the six or seven trucks that KGM sends in and out each day also can get caught in the same traffic that commuters complain about.
But despite some of the challenges, Cotton said Kent’s centralized location – including being located near major distribution hubs for the four major Japanese bike manufacturers – make it ideal for the business.
“That’s huge for us,” he said.
Cotton acknowledged the city working to fix the at-grade railroad crossings as money becomes available, but offered another idea for speeding up traffic on Interstate 5 and state Route 167.
“Instead of a carpool lane, I’d like to see a truck lane,” he said.
Brian Beckley is a writer at the Kent Reporter. He can be reached at bbeckley@kentreporter.com.

Commuters and Kent: Lots of people, shrinking capacity

There are an estimated 250,000 vehicle trips per day in Kent. The city has about 300 miles of streets, including 105 intersections with traffic signals.

There are an estimated 250,000 vehicle trips per day in Kent. The city has about 300 miles of streets, including 105 intersections with traffic signals.

By Steve Hunter
Reporter Newspapers
Drivers who head east, west north or south through Kent all run into the same problem – heavy traffic.
There is no quick way to drive through the city because of thick traffic, especially at morning and evening rush hours.
Kent city officials know drivers struggle to go north or south through the valley as well as between the valley and the East Hill and West Hill.
The city completed several street projects that have helped, such as the South 277th corridor extension and a few of the street overpasses at railroad crossings.
But city officials have more than $600 million in proposed projects over the next 20 years to address traffic problems, and so far, no money to pay for the projects.
“It’s a broken system,” said Tim LaPorte, city deputy public works director. “There is not a quick fix or a simple fix.”
A heavy volume of traffic as well as waits for trains cause vehicles to back up throughout the city.
The problem starts with commuters (including those from outside of Kent) who use Pacific Highway, West Valley Highway, Fourth Avenue, East Valley Highway and Central Avenue to travel north and south through the city because Highway 167 and Interstate 5 are so overloaded.
The city streets were not built to serve as commuter routes when constructed decades ago.
“The local arterial roads served their purpose (in the 1970s) when they were intended to distribute traffic from the freeways into local neighborhoods and the business community,” LaPorte said. “They don’t do that anymore because the main arterial roads failed and people try to find any alternate route they can. People try to go the fastest route and that’s not necessarily the most direct.”
There are an estimated 250,000 vehicle trips per day in Kent. The city has about 300 miles of streets, including 105 intersections with traffic signals.
Drivers become frustrated with traffic signals as vehicles often back up at the lights and cannot get through the intersections at rush hour until a couple of cycles of light changes.
“About half of them have a very poor level of service,” LaPorte said of the intersections with traffic lights.
City crews added left-turn and right-turn pockets a few years ago at James Street and Central Avenue, but many more intersections need similar improvements to keep traffic flowing.
City traffic officials set signals to last longer for pedestrian crossings along Smith Street and James Street in the downtown area.
“The signal timing is longer for pedestrian crossings so that slows down vehicles because they have to wait longer,” said Cathy Mooney, city senior transportation planner.
Drivers also contend with waiting for trains along the heavy east and west commuter routes of James Street, Smith Street and Willis Street.
About 60 trains go through Kent each day, from freight trains to Amtrak to the Sounder commuter train. Railroad gates are down for an average of 2.5 hours per day in the city.
Commuters must wait on Smith Street when the Sounder picks up or drops off passengers in downtown Kent. Of course, people who ride the train take vehicles off the highway.
“We’re pro-transit and pro-roads,” LaPorte said.
But despite the commuter trains, light rail and even workers who telecommute from home, traffic congestion remains.
City officials expect construction of the South 228th Street overpass above the railroad tracks to be finished this fall. But many other projects to separate the roads from the railroad tracks remain to be funded along Willis Street, South 212th and South 228th.
“We have $170 million worth of (railroad overpass or underpass) projects we would like to build, but no funds,” Mooney said.
City staff has proposed a transportation impact fee on developers of new homes and commercial buildings. The City Council also has informally discussed other options, such as a business license fee charge per employee, vehicle license fees or voted general obligation bonds, to raise revenue to pay for street-railroad grade separation projects as well as new and improved streets.
So far, the city has not approved any new funding sources for streets.
“There’s no mechanism for funding,” LaPorte said. “In the meantime, we waste money sitting at intersections.”
The federal stimulus funds helped a bit this year, but did not even come close to what the city needs. City officials will use that money over the next year to help widen the East Valley Highway between Highway 167 and South 212th Street.
“The city of Kent did very well when we received $2 million,” LaPorte said. “But that’s out of about $600 million we need.”
Many commuters would like a return to the days of easy driving through the valley. Drivers also run into traffic congestion on the East Hill along the Benson Highway and Kent-Kangley Road.
“People want to get it back to the same connectivity as 30 years ago when you could get on Highway 167 and go,” LaPorte said. “But it’s so far broken, it’s bizarre. We have not put money in infrastructure and now we even forego basic road maintenance. We have not kept up (on maintenance) in Kent for the last five years.”
The lack of road maintenance can lead to even bigger, more expensive problems as city planners look ahead 20 years. LaPorte said about 250 miles of the 300 miles of Kent streets need additional maintenance.
“The cost can become a point of no return,” LaPorte said. “The cost could go from $600 million to $1.2 billion.”
Even with all of the traffic congestion and lack of funding in Kent, the city does sit in better shape than other cities.
“A lot of cities are in much worse shape than we are,” LaPorte said. “Some cities have nothing to put into street systems. They are totally broke. It’s a silent crisis in our region.”
Steve Hunter is a writer at the Kent Reporter. He can be reached at shunter@kentreporter.com.

Sound Transit, King County Metro and others deal with more growth, less money

Falling sales tax revenue has left Metro trying to find $213 million worth of cuts in the next two years and an estimated $500 million over the next four. Photo by Chad Coleman.

Falling sales tax revenue has left Metro trying to find $213 million worth of cuts in the next two years and an estimated $500 million over the next four. Photo by Chad Coleman.

By Jake Lynch
Reporter Newspapers
There is one thing and one thing only dominating discussions on the future of bus services in the Puget Sound area at the moment — The Benjamins.
While in healthier economic times, service providers and transit officials could be looking at expanding ridership, upgrading facilities, and adopting new technology, right now King County Metro is just trying to maintain the services they have.
Falling sales tax revenue has left Metro trying to find $213 million worth of cuts in the next two years, and an estimated $500 million over the next four.
Sound Transit too, fresh from the significant victory of getting a $17.8 million Sound Transit ballot measure passed by voters to expand light rail and regional bus services, is already facing the reality of having less money than it needs, perhaps $2 billion less.
Like Metro, Sound Transit relies on sales tax, taking a 0.9 percent share of sales tax revenue gathered in the areas it serves.
An historic recession has meant that this revenue is less than everyone had hoped. The Metro and Sound Transit picture is also complicated politically by the fact that the people of the Puget Sound region voted for the ballot measures based on what it said it would deliver.
All of this at a time when huge growth in areas outside Seattle, to the south and the east, particularly, have incorporated cities calling for more bus service.
Similarly, congestion on the roads, high gas prices, and a federal push to reduce CO2 emissions from traffic has put the spotlight on public transportation like never before.
King County has admitted it will have to reduce bus services, and the only question now is by how much, and where.
The question of where is one that elected officials are paying close attention to.
King County Executive Kurt Triplett’s proposal to plug the budget hole is based around using a combination of fare increases, deferred expansion, and saving money by being more efficient, in order to minimize the necessary evil – service reductions.
Triplett said that ensuring any service reductions were done proportionally across the entire system was a key goal of his plan, adding that if sub-regions try to create winners, the transit riders will be the losers.
But according to Joshua Schaer, one of a number of elected officials from the Eastside in King County Department of Transportation’s Eastside Transportation Partnership (ETP), Triplett’s plan actually subverts an agreement to ensure proportionate service.
“What I’ve heard is that because they are calling the service cuts “suspensions,” and not service “cuts,” when the services are reinstated they are not bound by the 40-40-20 agreement,” he said.
Under political agreements reached several years ago by the County Council, investment in new service must follow a 40-40-20 split, with 40 percent going to East King County, 40 percent to the south, and 20 percent to the west, essentially, Seattle. Cities in the east and the south have praised the idea, which is predictably unpopular in Seattle.
“They are basically getting around it by calling them suspensions,” Schaer said. “On the Eastside, we are paying for a good third of the service, but getting only 17 percent of the service.”
While service suspensions are clearly the biggest piece of Triplett’s transit puzzle, saving about $90 million over four years, auditors have been able to find between $15 and $22 million in savings just by tightening up the system.
That auditors have been able to identify so many efficiency improvements doesn’t speak well of Metro’s operations before now.
For example, training staff to actually use scheduling software that Metro already owns is expected to save $3.75 million a year.
That software will help schedulers identify how to better assign buses to avoid empty runs.
Also, Metro layovers, the time spent idle in between trips, run to 29 percent, compared to a national average of 21 percent.
While the extended layovers give operators a bigger cushion to keep routes on time, it also means that for almost a third of the time buses are on the road, they are not picking up passengers.
A group of King County Council members has come up with their own plan, which they say will reduce service cuts from 20 percent to between four and six percent, by bringing money in from the King County’s Ferry District, and raising bus fares by 25 cents each year for the next four years.
Fares were raised last year.
The councilors are also asking that the City of Seattle contribute more to the cost of providing a free-ride area downtown, an idea which Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis has already said they are highly unlikely to support.
The key benefit of their plan, the councilors say, is preserving the upcoming RapidRide bus service, 100,000 hours of additional service, in distinctly painted red and yellow buses, part of the Transit Now plan which was approved by King County voters in 2006.
RapidRide will provide more frequent, and quicker, service in five key corridors:

  • Tukwila to Federal Way on the Pacific Highway
  • Bellevue to Redmond via Crossroads and Overlake
  • West Seattle to downtown Seattle using Fauntleroy Way SW, California Avenue SW, and State Route 99
  • Ballard to Uptown and downtown Seattle along 15th Avenue NW
  • Aurora Avenue N between Shoreline and downtown Seattle

The Tukwila service will be the first cab off the rank, scheduled for launch at the end of 2010. The other services are scheduled to begin at staggered intervals over the next four years.
Through public outreach and research, Metro identified five corridors where capacity could be greatly increased by adding service and providing a faster trip.
ETP member Kathy Huckabay believes that RapidRide will be a positive addition to the regional bus picture.
“I’m not sure that we need new, specially painted buses, but these are great services and I strongly suggest we move forward with them,” she said.
In some instances the RapidRide services will replace existing routes, a move toward great efficiency in road time.
“They will also attract more riders, which will increase revenue,” Huckabay said.
She is one of a number of transportation experts who believes that officials must take notice of suggestions to trim inefficiencies in order to reduce service reductions, and that route reductions, when necessary, needed to be “more surgical.”
“I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to just cut them across the board,” she said “Let’s find a way of distributing service cuts more fairly, by being more creative with how we reduce services. Maybe people might have to wait a little longer for a bus, but the key is to provide broader coverage, to keep people moving.”
But according to both Huckabay and Schaer, the biggest step that transportation agencies could take to improve the regional bus scene is to work together.
It is something that the ETP asked Dow Constantine and Susan Hutchison, the two remaining candidates for King County Executive, when they met with the ETP on Sept. 11.
“I’m interested in how the new executive plans to better coordinate the transportation system,” Schaer said. “It’s very fractionalized. There are a lot of different agencies, some of them covering similar routes. That was one of the reasons they brought in the ORCA card – it was too hard to figure out what each different trip would cost.”
Those different agencies include Sound Transit and Metro, the Port of Seattle, which governs the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway corridor, and a number of community transit systems, such as those servicing Snohomish and Pierce counties.
“There is a lot of duplication of service,” Huckabay said, citing Sound Transit’s 554 service and Metro’s 218, which both connect Seattle with Issaquah.
“Throughout the county there are lots of opportunities of that type,” she said. “You look at the Eastgate Transit Center, or Mercer Island – there are often three or four buses showing up at the same time.”
Huckabay said there was no interaction between the community transit services coming in to Seattle, and Metro, interaction that could not only provide a better system for riders but would save a lot of money by reducing the number of agencies and trimming overheads.
“Consolidating some of these providers would make more savings that anything Metro could do on it’s own,” she said.
So plenty of energy is being expended on regional bus services at the moment.
But, RapidRide aside, bus users are not likely to see any improvements in the near future.
At the moment, it is all about treading water – maintaining a system many believe we have already long outgrown.
Jake Lynch is editor of the Issaquah Reporter. He can be contacted at editor@issasquahreporter.com.

Federal Way police key on transit safety

Federal Way Police are beefing up their patrol of the Federal Way Transit Center

Federal Way Police are beefing up their patrol of the Federal Way Transit Center

By Jacinda Howard
Federal Way Mirror
Security upgrades and added police presence are the backbone of an effort to increase public safety at the Federal Way Transit Center.
The transit center, 31621 23rd Ave. S., is owned by Sound Transit, but patrolled by hired guards and local police. The city of Federal Way, police and Sound Transit are working in collaboration to install cameras with higher resolution as well as a direct video feed from the transportation facility to the police station.
Increased police patrolling of the area is already in place, former police spokesman Raymond Bunk said. Some of the upgrades have come in reaction to criminal activity. Other items are part of a larger regional effort to increase safety at Sound Transit-owned transportation hubs, Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray said.
“We’ve got some Homeland Security grant money and we’re looking at all our transit centers in the region,” he said.
Three high-resolution cameras were installed last spring on the Federal Way Transit Center pedestrian platform. They provide direct live video feed to police via the Safe City program. The cameras are in direct response to a shooting in early 2008 as well as an early-April beating that left a man with broken bones and his jaw wired shut.
Both incidents attracted large-scale media attention. The current cameras in place left police unable to identify the suspects in both cases, Bunk said.
The replacement of an additional 30 cameras to high-resolution equipment is scheduled for completion this fall. These cameras will be located on the platform and in the garage. They will make it easier for police and Sound Transit guards to read license plate numbers and have a more detailed look at the platform area, Gray said.

After a shooting at the transit center, a witness told police that a man named Glenn Proctor, 21, was the shooter. Video of the crime was accessible, but it was difficult to make out a description of the suspect. Proctor's lawyers hired an electronics engineer to pick apart the fuzzy footage. The man's efforts, math and science skills feed Proctor.

After a shooting at the transit center, a witness told police that a man named Glenn Proctor, 21, was the shooter. Video of the crime was accessible, but it was difficult to make out a description of the suspect. Proctor's lawyers hired an electronics engineer to pick apart the fuzzy footage. The man's efforts, math and science skills freed Proctor.

Troublesome activity
The transit center opened in 2006. Security cameras and Sound Transit guards provide around-the-clock public safety services.
Approximately 50 cameras now monitor visitors’ activities. But the cameras’ resolution is not perfect. Video is blurry. The need to increase the resolution of the cameras first gained attention earlier this year when Glenn Proctor, 21, was released after spending nearly a year in jail with second-degree homicide charges attached to his name.
In January 2008, a woman was shot and killed at the Federal Way Transit Center. The woman was a bystander. A witness told police Proctor was the shooter. Video of the crime was accessible, but it was difficult to make out a description of the suspect. Proctor’s lawyers hired an electronics engineer to pick apart the fuzzy footage. The man’s efforts, math and science skills freed Proctor.

Tools to serve justice
Soon after Proctor was released from jail and news of the April assault hit television, city council member and prosecuting attorney Jim Ferrell announced his desire to see the camera system at the transit center improved.
Mayor Jack Dovey also recently supported the initiative to better secure the transit center. The security measures are needed as a means to send the message that Federal Way will not tolerate a “thug mentality,” Ferrell said.
They are needed as a tool to hold criminals accountable for their actions, Ferrell said. Not being able to serve justice because of a lack of sophisticated technology is unacceptable, he said.
“What really spurred my interest is this homicide case went unsolved,” Ferrell said. “We cannot have that happen again.”
The transportation center, in its current state, is a safe place, but police are eager to have better technology to aid them in their jobs, Bunk said.
“I believe these were isolated incidents,” he said. “We’ve had cameras down there, it’s generally a safe area.”
The high-resolution cameras will provide on-duty patrol officers with accurate suspect descriptions. High-resolution video will also be more helpful in court, Bunk said.
Jacinda Howard can be contacted at jhoward@federalwaymirror.com.