Category Archives: Agencies

King County Metro audit shows huge savings possible

By Jacinda Howard
Federal Way Mirror
A Sept. 15 audit report reveals King County Metro transit could spend less and save more through better planning and data analysis.
The audit, which was performed by the King County Auditor’s Office, comes at a time when Metro is finding itself short on funding and looking for ways to achieve cost savings. The agency is projecting a $213 million budget gap over the next two years.
The audit proposes an adjustment to the agency’s contributions to its fleet replacement fund, changes to Metro’s fare structure, and a closer look at the free services provided in downtown Seattle, among other things. It identifies ways to save money and mostly avoid service cuts.
“People need to know that we have transmitted to King County Metro the importance of maintaining transit service in South King County,” said Jeanne Burbidge, Federal Way City Council member.

Cost savings:
King County Metro transit serves more than 100 million customers annually. It operates roughly 1,300 vehicles. A variety of buses, electric trolleys and street cars are used in the agency’s operations.
Each year, Metro channels funding into its Revenue Fleet Replacement Fund. The amount generally exceeds what is needed for yearly replacements and expansions of the fleet, according to the audit. A one-time savings of $105 million could be captured, and the fleet still maintained, by removing that amount from the replacement fund, the audit found.

Increased revenue:
The audit proposes adjusting the fare structure. Up to $51 million a year in revenue could be made if Metro reworked its fare schedule. Decreasing discounts offered to seniors, youths and riders needing a transfer is proposed. This would increase revenue, according to the audit.
Currently, these discounted fares are significantly greater than those offered by peer agencies and those required by the Federal Transit Administration, according to the audit.
Federal Way City Council member Jeanne Burbidge, who also serves on the King County Regional Transportation Committee, said she has not witnessed support of this recommendation.
“I have not seen much interest directly in changing those fares,” she said.
More clearly identifying the ratio between operational costs, and the amount of costs recovered through fares, would also benefit Metro, according to the audit.

Equal service:
Currently, Metro provides free services within downtown Seattle. The city provides some compensation for the program, but the audit found Metro was unable to support, fully explain or provide backup documentation for the formula it uses to claim reimbursement from the City of Seattle for this service. What Seattle pays to Metro does not come close to covering the agency’s costs to provide the free rides, Burbidge said.
“There’s a significant amount of money that isn’t changing hands there that could help to balance the deficit,” Burbidge said.

Next steps:
The Metropolitan King County Council and King County Regional Transportation Committee have yet to publicly weigh in on the auditor’s suggestions. The process of addressing the concerns surfaced in the audit could take several years, Burbidge said. The sooner Metro can adjust its way of doing business so as to best serve all its customers, the better it will be for those relying on the agency’s services, she said.
“So far, they are saying this is going to take a while,” Burbidge said. “I don’t believe it should take perhaps as long as they say it will take.”

To read the full audit report, visit www.kingcounty.gov/operations/auditor/Reports/Year/2009.aspx.

The audit covers six general areas: Financial and capital planning, bus service development, bus operator and transit police staffing, Americans with Disabilities Act paratransit, vehicle maintenance and ridership data. It was requested last year by the Metropolitan King County Council after a significant drop in sales tax revenues, which partially support King County Metro.
Jacinda Howard is a writer at the Federal Way Mirror. She can be reached at jhoward@federalwaymirror.com.

Olympia holds the keys to Puget Sound’s future mobility

Lake Washington bridge, aka I-90 floating bridge, toll takers ca. 1940. Photo courtesy of the Washington State Dept. of Transportation.

Lake Washington bridge, aka I-90 floating bridge, toll takers ca. 1940. Photo courtesy of the Washington State Dept. of Transportation.

By Mary L. Grady
Reporter Newspapers
There are literally thousands of people who shape the transportation system in our state and region. They are engineers working out of trucks in the field, computer analysts and policy wonks who conduct surveys and open meetings. It is a complex system born of classic top-down government directive, but has become leavened with local control and public involvement.
Yet any such system brings with it an assortment of conflicting priorities and overlapping jurisdictions. Weaving our way toward understanding what is happening with roads and rails means taking a look at who runs the show.
Just who is in charge of transportation planning in Washington state and the Puget Sound region?
Maybe surprisingly, it is the law and lawmakers who are the primary drivers of the look and feel of the patchwork of transportation networks and priorities. Through the passage of bills and mandates, lawmakers enable and fund agencies to set the parameters for planning and construction in motion.
The Washington State Legislature, through the Joint Transportation Committee, drives the budget choices for the state transportation budget submitted to the governor. Representative Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island) leads a group of 29 legislators from both the House and the Senate as the head of the Joint Transportation Committee.
The role of the Transportation Committee is to work with the initial budget proposed by the governor to come up with a final number and list of projects. From there, funds are dispersed to projects, counties and other special transportation districts.
Along the way, the state has added new regulations to respond to growing concerns about the environment and to accommodate both the movement of goods as well as people.
The other primary players in transportation include:

  • The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is an agency of the state and is primarily in charge of roads.
  • The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) is one of the Metropolitan Planning Organizations enabled by the state that is required “to carry out a continuing, coordinated and comprehensive planning process,” for King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap Counties.
  • King County Metro (METRO) is a public transportation system “organized as a locally controlled special purpose government to provide public transit (primarily bus) services” within the greater King County area.
  • Sound Transit is in a category of its own, again set up by legislation, to provide high-capacity transit services in various forms for King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties.

At the state level, the Legislature and the Joint Transportation Committee, while reworking budgets and priorities, must always keep their eye on what is coming next. Yet, as key highways and bridges are now being repaired and high capacity transit has been set in motion after years of uncertainty and indecision, the direction of any future transportation investments could be slowed significantly by the lack of funds.

Money, Clibborn and others say, is the single most critical factor in planning for future transportation needs.
The primary source of funding for transportation projects comes from the gas tax. With people driving less and more efficient cars replacing the stock of older, less efficient cars, gas tax revenues have fallen precipitously.
Because of these trends, the overall transportation revenue picture has dimmed by $3 billion over the 16-year, long-term plan of the last transportation budget. As such, the Legislature must and has been looking for new ways to pay for bridges, roads and rail transit.
“We have to come up with some new ideas in the next session of the Legislature to fund transportation in the future. The gas tax,” Clibborn said, “is a failing resource.”
It has served as a proxy for (highway) user fees, she explained. But now, with more efficient vehicles and even vehicles that do not use any gas, the gas tax no longer makes much sense.
Tolls and some types of user fees have moved to the top of the list.
“The move to tolls is an opportunity to expand not only revenues, but to manage traffic during peak times, and send price signals to encourage changes in behavior,” she said. They may not be popular, she notes, but are increasingly necessary.
Yet the Legislature forges ahead.
Last April, the Legislature presented the final version of a $7.5 billion 2009-11 state transportation budget, which will finance more than 400 projects across the state, generating 46,000 jobs.
The final budget represents the compromise between the budgets passed by the House and Senate earlier this legislative session. Clibborn said the transportation budget is one area of strength in an otherwise tough budget year amidst the economic downturn.
“The transportation budget is the good news in a bad-news economy,” Clibborn said. “We’re actually on the verge of the busiest transportation construction season ever for Washington state.
“When you take into account this budget and the federal stimulus dollars we appropriated earlier this session, we’re looking at an unprecedented transportation investment.”
Mary Grady is editor of the Mercer Island Reporter. She can be reached at 206-232-1215 or mgrady@mi-reporter.com.

Sound Transit, WSDOT handle different ways to travel

Multifamily neighborhoods in East King County illustrate the rapid residential growth in the region over the past twenty years. Photo by Chad Coleman.

Multifamily neighborhoods in East King County illustrate the rapid residential growth in the region over the past twenty years. Photo by Chad Coleman.

By Mary L. Grady
Reporter Newspapers
On Saturday, July 18, 2009, it was a new day for the Puget Sound region. Forty-five thousand people came out to ride Seattle’s new light rail system on opening day. But it took years and years of planning and agonizing in fits and starts to come to that day last summer.
Decades earlier, after recognizing that the region’s existing transportation system would someday be inadequate, the state Legislature passed a law that allowed counties to create a single agency, Sound Transit — the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority — to develop alternatives for meeting regional travel needs.
In particular, the Legislature charged the agency with planning, building and operating a high-capacity transit system (within a three-county regional transit district) for the region’s most heavily used travel corridors.

Sound Transit means high-capacity buses and trains
Voters in 1996 approved a plan that provides the foundation of that system — regional express buses, commuter rail and light rail. Today, Sound Transit carries nearly 14 million riders a year.
As such, Sound Transit is the agency responsible for providing a regional transportation network that goes beyond roads, bridges and county boundaries.
The Sound Transit district map includes the most congested urban areas of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, and generally follows the urban growth boundaries created by each county in accordance with the state Growth Management Act.
There are three major parts to Sound Transit:

  • Express bus: These buses connect Seattle, Bellevue, Everett and Tacoma with the region’s largest urban centers. New transit centers, park-and-ride lots and HOV access projects are part of the system to improve transit speed and service.
  • Sounder commuter trains: These trains run 74 miles every weekday between Everett and Tacoma.
  • Light rail: Sound Transit’s light rail system consists of a 1.6-mile line in Tacoma known as the Tacoma Link. The Central Link is a 15.7-mile light rail line running between downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac Airport.

It consists of a currently operating 14-mile initial segment, plus a 1.7-mile extension to the airport called Airport Link, scheduled to open in December 2009. The line runs through the SoDo district, Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley and portions of Tukwila. Central Link officially opened on July 18 for the initial segment.
A light rail extension north to the University of Washington via Capitol Hill began late last year, with service starting in 2016. The three-mile extension, to be completely underground, is expected to cost $1.5 billion. Half of the funding is expected to come from a grant from the Federal Transit Administration.

WSDOT means roads and ferries
The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is responsible for planning, building and fixing more than 7,000 miles of highway in our state used by some 4.5 million drivers each year.
In addition to the roadways, the state is responsible for state-owned airports, ferries and the Washington State Patrol, licensing, and other services related to monitoring these networks and their use.
WSDOT is funded and directed by the governor and the state Legislature.
The agency prepares a Washington Transportation Plan, a 20-year vision for the state-owned and certain ‘state-interest’ modes of transportation.
This is a combination of the long-range statewide transportation plan (which analyzes facilities that the state operates) and the statewide transportation policy plan. The plan is reviewed and revised every four years.
The plan has two major purposes: first, to coordinate both metropolitan and regional planning for moving people and goods; and second, to keep the state eligible for federal funding. State, local, and federal transportation projects are not eligible for federal funding unless Washington has a long-range statewide transportation plan.
The plan is to also consider and implement projects, strategies and services that support the economic vitality of more rural, non-metropolitan areas.
Over the years, the Legislature designated and enabled three major types of transportation planning organizations to plan, construct and operate transportation networks.
As such, WSDOT is intertwined with the projects and planning efforts conducted by Sound Transit and King County Metro and various other transportation planning organizations scattered across the state.
The agency, working closely with private contractors, is presently in year five of a 25-year program to deliver the largest capital construction program in state history — more than $15 billion in projects, including 391 highway projects valued at $11 billion.
As WSDOT delivers transportation services, it must also work to preserve and fix environmental quality. Programs such as stormwater treatment, construction site erosion control, fish passage barrier removal, wetland replacement, air pollution control, and adaptation to climate change are important to the future health and safety of citizens. Each helps to protect priceless natural resources.
For more, go to www.wsdot.wa.gov and www.soundtransit.org.
Mary L. Grady is the editor of the Mercer Island Reporter. She can be reached at editor@mi-reporter.com.

PSRC, Washington legislature share credit (and blame) for transportation planning

The 1990 Growth Management Act stipulates that new development be clustered near transportation networks and amenities to lessen traffic. Photo by Chad Coleman.

The 1990 Growth Management Act stipulates that new development be clustered near transportation networks and amenities to lessen traffic. Photo by Chad Coleman.

By Mary L. Grady
Reporter Newspapers
In the Puget Sound region, the parameters for land use decisions and, by extension, transportation networks, are set by the Puget Sound Regional Council and the state of Washington’s Growth Management Act.
The dozens of cities, counties and other jurisdictions within the four-county Puget Sound region are well acquainted with the workings of these laws. Following these policies also determines if public projects which accompany that growth are eligible for grants or subsidies.

Puget Sound Regional Council
The Puget Sound Regional Council works across the counties, cities and other agencies in the Puget Sound region to manage, accommodate and even shape growth under the authority of both state and federal laws.
The 67-member agency conducts planning and forecasting to set the parameters for planning transportation networks, optimizing land use patterns and encouraging. Money for the agency comes from a variety of sources, including grants from state and federal entities and monies from the member agencies.
The PSRC is responsible for setting out a published comprehensive strategy for managing growth in the region through a public process. Counties, cities and other jurisdictions are to use this plan to form their own policies regarding transportation and new population growth while encouraging economic growth and quality of life. The PSRC has the authority given to it by state law to ensure that cities, counties and other jurisdictions follow the policies outlined in its plans.
The PSRC periodically revises its three sets of policy directives for the region. They are: VISION 2040, the most recent plan which represents the region’s growth strategy; Destination 2030, the region’s current comprehensive long-range transportation plan; and Prosperity Partnership, which develops and advances the region’s economic strategy.
VISION 2040 details a strategy to accommodate the additional 1.7 million people and 1.2 million new jobs expected to be in the region by the year 2040. The work, which looked at several different alternatives, was drafted with three main concepts in mind:

  • A plan or preferred alternative must deal with congestion and increase mobility for all kinds of freight and personal travel despite population and employment growth.
  • Improve the environment and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Sustainable funding for the plan.

Within the metropolitan and core cities, VISION 2040 supports concentrating population and employment growth in regionally designated growth centers. These centers are to serve as hubs for regional transportation, public services and amenities. The new “urban villages” such as Kent Station and Talus, in Issaquah, reflect these concepts.
VISION 2040 is ultimately to help leaders accomplish common objectives that transcend jurisdictional borders.
Along with the role that the report plays in directing decisions by local governments, the analysis contained within these efforts provides the basis for distributing about $160 million in federal transportation funds each year.

The Growth Management Act
During the boom years of the late 1970s and 1980s, Puget Sound residents found that the region, which they had once known as bucolic, had begun to change. Commuters in King County and around Puget Sound were stymied by traffic. Farmland continued to disappear, open space and wildlife habitat was lost, and surface water runoff and pollution threatened salmon streams. Residents began demanding that politicians take action to protect their environment and quality of life.

As a result, the Legislature passed the Washington State Growth Management Act, the key piece of legislation that determines where and how local agencies will manage growth and land use. The bill says in part:
“The Legislature finds that uncoordinated and unplanned growth, together with a lack of common goals … pose a threat to the environment, sustainable economic development, and the health, safety and high quality of life enjoyed by residents of this state. It is in the public interest that citizens, communities, local governments and the private sector cooperate and coordinate with one another in comprehensive land use planning.”
The GMA requires that counties above a stated population level or rate of increase (and cities within those counties) adopt growth-management comprehensive plans and implement them through “development regulations.”
It established 13 “planning goals” to guide the preparation of local plans and regulations. Local governments were to direct most growth into urban areas, require adequate transportation facilities for new development, protect natural resource lands and environmentally critical areas, encourage economic development and protect property rights.
It was a long time coming.
As Walt Crowley of HistoryLink.org describes the urgency to control development: “With environmentalism a significant political force in the early 1970s, Republican Governor Dan Evans won passage of landmark laws like the State Environmental Policy Act — modeled on the National Environmental Policy Act, sponsored by Washington Senator Henry Jackson — and the Shoreline Management Act. After a mid-1970s economic spurt quickened transformation of open space and farms into subdivisions and shopping centers, county voters passed a 1979 bond issue to buy development rights and preserve farmland.”
In 1985, King County planners completed a Comprehensive Plan to guide land use decisions, foreshadowing several aspects of the GMA. It reasoned that certain areas be protected.
The GMA has been amended or revised by almost every legislative session since its adoption. Like our region and the land it protects, it is a “living” document.
Mary Grady is editor of the Mercer Island Reporter. She can be reached at editor@mi-reporter.com.

Western Washington transportation: A brief history

Skyscrapers in downtown Bellevue signal the city's emergence as a regional economic powerhouse. Photo by Chad Coleman.

Skyscrapers in downtown Bellevue signal the city's emergence as a regional economic powerhouse. Photo by Chad Coleman.

NOTE: You can view an interactive timeline of the history of transportation in the Puget Sound area.

By Mary L. Grady
Reporter Newspapers
To understand where we are now, we need to look back on where we have been. How has our transportation network come about, who are the players, and what role have voters had in shaping how we co-exist in a growing and ever-changing metropolitan environment?
The floating bridges, interstate highways and emergence of rail all came about through planning exercises that began more than 70 years ago.
In Washington, the Legislature first authorized counties and cities to engage in land-use planning and adopt zoning controls as early as 1937. But the choice remained optional.
Historylink.org and the essays by Walt Crowley offer a compelling timeline of the players and events of transporation planning in the Puget Sound region.
In October 1957, Seattle Mayor Gordon S. Clinton brought together state and local officials to discuss a comprehensive transportation study for the Seattle region. The outcome, several years later, was the Puget Sound Regional Transportation Study (PSRTS).
The PSRTS was developed not just for the Seattle metropolitan area but for the urbanized area of all four central Puget Sound counties: King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish. The four counties and their major cities, Seattle, Bremerton, Tacoma and Everett, participated through the Puget Sound Governmental Conference, which sponsored the study along with the state Highway Commission and federal Bureau of Public Roads.
The project was among the nation’s first large-scale attempts at comprehensive regional planning for transportation and land use.
On Sept. 30, 1967, the $1.6 million Puget Sound Regional Transportation Study (PSRTS) released its final summary report. However, the document disappointed many planners and mass transit advocates by concluding that rail rapid transit was not feasible in the region and, instead, proposed many new highways and bridges.

Recommending Roads
In place of a transit system, the PSRTS proposed to serve the growing suburban population with new highways. Along with the already planned R. H. Thomson Freeway in Seattle, east of I-5 (which voters would later cancel), the PSRTS recommended an Eastside freeway between I-405 and Lake Sammamish, various connecting freeways in Seattle between Aurora Avenue, I-5 and the proposed Thomson Freeway, and many more new freeways in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. The study also called for a new Lake Washington bridge between Sand Point and Kirkland, and perhaps most controversially, strongly recommended a bridge across Puget Sound, from Fauntleroy (West Seattle) to Southworth in Kitsap County via Vashon Island.
Residents in the path of these proposed highways, not least on Vashon Island, reacted with alarm. Few of the proposals ever made it off the drawing board.
In 1968, transit advocates brought a plan to voters, but it would be three decades before Puget Sound voters approved funding.
On Feb. 13, 1968, King County voted on 12 Forward Thrust bond propositions (and one transit administration referendum), totaling $815.2 million. Voters approved seven propositions worth $333.9 million, including a $40 million multipurpose stadium (the Kingdome) and $118 million for new parks. Yet, local bonds for $385 million to help fund a $1.15 million rapid transit system failed with only 50.8 percent of the vote.
On May 19, 1970, King County voters rejected four Forward Thrust bond issues for a regional rail transit system, storm water control, community centers, and new County public health and safety facilities. The total local cost of $615.5 million (not counting $900 million in pending federal aid for mass transit) was too much for voters amid the deepening Boeing Bust.

Bill Dues, a WSDOT engineer, stands on an I-90 overpass during construction on Mercer Island in 1988. Photo by Bob DeLasmutt.

Bill Dues, a WSDOT engineer, stands on an I-90 overpass during construction on Mercer Island in 1988. Photo by Bob DeLasmutt.

Yet, a transit measure finally passed and work began in Seattle to address increasing congestion.
On Nov. 8, 1988, a King County advisory ballot issue asked citizens, “Should public funding and development of a rail transit system to serve the residents of King County be accelerated so that service in King County can begin before the year 2000?” Voters answered “yes” by more than a two-to-one margin.
By the early 1990s, the movement to expand mass transit finally got into gear.
Bus service began in the newly completed downtown Seattle transit tunnel on Sept. 15, 1990.
In 1993, the Washington State Department of Transportation was reorganized to branch away from its highway focus and assume a greater role in freight and passenger rail, aviation, ferries, bicycle trails and mass transit.
On Jan. 28, 1995, the Regional Transit Authority commenced a public demonstration of commuter rail service between Everett, Seattle, Kent and Tacoma, which was part of a proposed “Sound Move” plan on the March 14 ballot.
Yet there were setbacks. Voters in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties rejected the regional transit plan on March 14, 1995. The Regional Transit Authority proposal for rail and bus transit improvements won majorities in Seattle, Mercer Island and Shoreline, but was soundly defeated on the Eastside and in King and Snohomish counties. A scaled-down “Sound Transit” plan was adopted the following year.
Sound Transit inaugurated Sounder commuter rail service between Tacoma and Seattle on Sept. 18, 2000.
On Nov. 5, 2002, Seattle voters narrowly approved a new Seattle Popular Monorail Authority and Washington voters rejected the state Referendum 51 transportation plan and gas tax increase while approving Initiative 776, which cut motor vehicle taxes.
Yet transit inched ahead.
On Aug. 22, 2003, Sound Transit’s Tacoma Link, the state’s first modern light rail system, celebrated its inaugural run in downtown Tacoma.
Sound Transit installed the first rails for Central Link light rail in SoDo (south downtown Seattle) on Aug. 17, 2005.
On Saturday, July 18, 2009, thousands of people rode Seattle’s new light rail system on opening day.
For more information, go to historylink.org or the Museum of History and Industry at www.seattlehistory.org.

Mary L. Grady is the editor of the Mercer Island Reporter. She can be reached at editor@mi-reporter.com.