Category Archives: Featured

Transportation: Western Washington’s No. 1 challenge

This view of I-90 looks east from Mercer Island toward Bellevue and the I-405 interchange. Photo by Chad Coleman.

This view of I-90 looks east from Mercer Island toward Bellevue and the I-405 interchange. Photo by Chad Coleman.

By Mary L. Grady
Reporter Newspapers
What is happening here?
To even the least jaded of commuters, the transportation system in the central Puget Sound region is a jumble of acronyms and staggering numbers.
It is confusing on any scale. Why do we need to pay more to ride a Sound Transit bus rather than Metro? We see WSDOT signs along I-405 and SR-167, yet wonder who sets and collects those HOT lane tolls.
Congestion is no longer something faced by those driving in and out of Seattle — it has crept east and south to neighborhoods and towns, both big and small. Whether we realize it or not, the flaws and foibles of the region’s transportation networks have ingrained themselves into our daily lives.
Uncertainty and longer commute times have taught us many things. It is important to pay attention to changes brought about by freeway shut-downs for major construction — we log on to computers or listen to the radio before we set out for work.
Somehow, these lifeless ribbons of concrete and steel are no longer just part of the landscape; they make news.
When the I-90 bridge sank in 1990, Puget Sounders woke up to the fact that the concrete and steel we took for granted were indeed vulnerable. The 6.8 Nisqually earthquake on Feb. 28, 2001, was another wake-up call. Weather reports that formerly included temperatures from SeaTac now report the wind speeds on the increasingly fragile SR-520 bridge.
The timing is perhaps fortuitous. The teetering stack of increasing congestion, rising fuel prices and the paradoxical factor of huge SUVs and 53-foot-long commercial trucks have brought us to the tipping point. The global economic meltdown that began late last year gave urgency to the situation.
We knew it was serious when commuters left their cars behind and crammed onto buses. Ironically, these threats to our treasured mobility have reached critical mass at the same time that major transportation projects in the works for years are coming to fruition.
So, how did we get here?
In the late 1970s, housing prices exploded within the urban centers of the Puget Sound region. People moved east and south along the interstate corridors, trading longer commute times for affordable housing.
The interstate highway system in place here, along with our love affair with cars, had people driving long distances for work and play. Gasoline was plentiful and affordable. Cars became second homes with creature comforts.
But it was not to last.
Our awareness of the fragility of our highway system stared us in the face during the stormy night when part of the I-90 bridge sank.
Now, the crisis has become personal as we fill the tank with $3 gas, wait for a half hour to merge 300 feet, or inch our way into the mall parking lot during the holidays. We have long wanted a solution, but we thought it didn’t really have much to do with us. It seemed someone else should pay.
At the polls, we face ballot measures with figures that look like the national debt. How could it possibly cost $100 million to fix a highway, or add a bus lane?
And just what is the difference between Sound Transit and Metro, anyway, and what about WSDOT? Why are we continuing to spend money on roads when driving less is key to slowing climate change? And we are worried. Will I have to pay every time I drive my car? Or worse, will I not get to go where I want, when I want?
Yet, there is hope. Some of those millions have been spent so that you can pay a few bucks in those HOT lanes and get where you are going faster. Getting to Mariners games from the Eastside is a piece of cake on the bus.
That new interchange, express bus route or transit center nearby offers relief in both time and lower gas bills.
And last summer, many proved that they were ready to embrace light rail as 45,000 people rode the Sound Transit Central Link on its inaugural run. Getting to the airport will be easier just in time for the holidays.
We hope to help you sort out what is happening with roads and transit — not only regionally, but in your neighborhood. We will identify the players, talk about the money and what the future holds.
We hope to continue the conversation with you, and our law and policy makers via the Web, our radio partner, KIRO, and of course, in print.
Whether it is getting to work, to the doctor, school or the mountains to enjoy the mountains, we are all in this together.
Mary Grady is editor of the Mercer Island Reporter. She can be reached at
editor@mi-reporter.com.

Sound Transit is back on track

Sound Transit opened the Central Link line of the light rail in July, a 14-mile stretch of track that will go from downtown Seattle to Sea-Tac Airport by the end of the year. Photo by Chad Coleman.

Sound Transit opened the Central Link line of the light rail in July, a 14-mile stretch of track that will go from downtown Seattle to Sea-Tac Airport by the end of the year. Photo by Chad Coleman.

By Dean A. Radford
Reporter Newspapers
Joni Earl has a simple motto:
Under promise and over deliver.
Failure to follow that recipe for success is what got her agency, Sound Transit, in trouble before she took over as chief executive officer in 2001.
Earl found an agency with a billion-dollar cost overrun because it had no way to track its finances and was promising projects it couldn’t deliver.
Earl brought to bear her expertise in finance and local government in reshaping the culture of an agency that was pretty good at managing and designing bus and commuter rail projects, but derailed when it came to running its basic business operations.
Of course, that work was done in tandem with the Sound Transit Board of Directors, a point Earl repeatedly made in an interview with Reporter Newspapers recently.
Earl, with her gift for communication and her willingness to be brutally honest about what her agency was doing wrong – and right – can now look back on her nearly 10 years at the helm and marvel at the 14 miles of Link light rail snaking from Seattle to nearly Sea-Tac Airport.
With the opening of Link light rail, Sound Transit today is now operating the three pieces of its voter-mandated transit system – commuter rail, light rail and a regional bus system in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.
But her work – and Sound Transit’s – is far from done. There are billions of new tax dollars to be spent to extend light rail to Bellevue and beyond and add 10s of thousands of hours of new regional bus service.
The agency will draw on its years of experience planning, designing and then building Link, which opened in July, to work with Eastside community and business leaders to build from scratch East Link, which when done will link downtown Seattle with the Overlake Transit Center between Bellevue and Redmond.
Of course, along the way, it will pass through downtown Bellevue. City officials and business leaders want a tunnel for light rail to ease impact on businesses and downtown traffic. But that’s the most expensive option for building light rail and Sound Transit doesn’t have enough money to build it, based on the taxes voters approved for Sound Transit 2.
Bellevue and Sound Transit will continue to debate the tunnel. A final alignment will be picked this year.
A tunnel is not totally out of the realm of possibility. But Bellevue would have to help pay for it. It’s another one of Earl’s guiding principles to keep Sound Transit financially healthy and credible as a government agency.
“Even if someone really really wants something, we aren’t going to promise something if I can’t find a financial path to make it happen,” she said in the interview. That path would lead to Bellevue’s budget office.
“That’s how Sound Transit lost its credibility, I think,” she said, by not realizing the depth of the financial trouble it faced in the early years and not being open about that problem.
“Those days are over, at least on my watch,” she said.
Today, Sound Transit is fresh off the start of Central Link and commuter trains through the Green River Valley are pulling cars off the Interstate 5 corridor between Tacoma and Seattle.
In 20 years, Bellevue will have its own light rail and South King County will have thousands of hours of new bus service and even more commuter trains running up and down the Green River Valley.
But will we have left our cars behind to travel on a seamless regional transportation system of interlocking rail and bus routes? Probably not. And that’s not a realistic goal anyway, says Earl, because someone will always need a car to get to work. But she’s seeing a shift away from total reliance on a car.
“I meet more and more people now who tell me they got rid of a second car because of how much transit is out there,” said.
But Sound Transit will tempt commuters with convenient options for travel and continue to refine, along with King County Metro, the region’s bus routes to make them more efficient.
Dean A. Radford is the Editor of the Renton Reporter. He can be contacted at editor@rentonreporter.com.

Light rail: Checking out the ride (and more) on Central Link

A Central Link light rail train glides across an elevated platform. Photo by Chad Coleman.

A Central Link light rail train glides across an elevated platform. Photo by Chad Coleman.

By Lindsay Larin
Reporter Newspapers
The sights of Seattle flash by the windows of the Central Link light rail during the 13.9-mile stretch from the Westlake Station to Tukwila International Boulevard Station.
Central Link runs with two-car trains that hold a maximum of 400 people and eight bikes. A 1.7-mile extension to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport will open in December 2009.
For now, eleven stations line the stretch of tracks between Westlake and Tukwila. The stations are split between outdoor platforms and underground tunnels, all with covered areas, benches and route information. Glass artwork and vibrant metal designs distinguish the stations from one another, paying tribute to the small sub-communities within the Greater Seattle area.
Capturing the beauty of modern technology, there are 35 new pieces of art appearing up and down the new light rail line.
While riding through the SODO district, a giant red “R” sits on the rail sign on the new brick-faced Operations and Maintenance building. The “R” was once the distinctive first letter on the old Rainier beer sign from the brewery that once stood at the same location.
Trans_Light_Rail_file4Soft purple lighting welcomes riders to the Beacon Hill Station and a glass painted wall partially stretches across the outdoor platform of the Mt. Baker Station.
The Tukwila International Boulevard Station offers a two story, covered waiting area with free parking and public restrooms. Artwork titled, Confluence, by Clark Wiegman sits on the parking level of the station. The Link art program, STart, worked closely with the local communities to find artists and artworks that matched the unique history and spirit of each neighborhood.
Beyond the aesthetic reasons, the assurance of frequent, reliable operation is a major attraction for some riders. Tickets are purchased by cash or card using self-serve kiosks at the stations. Commuters are asked to show their pass during random checks by Sound Transit personal. Although the payment system is based on a “proof of payment” method, Sound Transit has begun issuing $124 citations to people who ride light-rail trains without paying.
According to spokesman Bruce Gray, about 60 citations have been issued since Aug. 24 by transit police and unarmed security guards.
Another method of payment for light rail is the new ORCA smart card, a rechargeable pass accepted on Sound Transit buses and trains. Electronic card readers are located on and near Link platforms. Riders using ORCA, tap the card on the reader when entering and exiting the train. The correct fairs are automatically deducted each time the card is used.
Ridership for light rail is expected to reach 21,000 riders every weekday by the end of 2009. By 2010, the average weekday ridership from downtown Seattle to Sea-Tac Airport is expected to total 26,600 riders.
The electric-powered light rail trains run on exclusive tracks, arriving at the 11 current stops, every 5 to 10 minutes. The trains run 20 hours a day, from 5 a.m. to nearly 1 a.m.
Link also offers easy connections to trains, buses and other transit options.
Sound Transit is working to extend light rail in the near future. University Link is a 3.15 mile light rail extension that will run from Downtown Seattle north to the University of Washington. The design work on North Link, East Link, and the First Hill Streetcar is under way.
To learn more about Central Link light rail, visit www.soundtransit.org or call 1.888.889.6368.
Lindsay Larin is a writer for the Bellevue Reporter. She can be reached at llarin@bellevuereporter.com.

Light-rail-route-map

ORCA: One Regional Card for All

By Lindsay Larin
Reporter Newspapers
Gone are the days of fumbling with paper tickets and juggling different passes to get from one place to another on mass transit. The launch of the new ORCA-One Regional Card for All (ORCA) pass program has made traveling around the Puget Sound easier than ever.
The ORCA program is a result of a combined effort by seven regional transportation agencies and is ideal for both individual use and business accounts. The program launched in April of 2009 and will eventually replace the PugetPass, FlexPass, Vanpool Pass, and Commuter Bonus Vouchers. The card is available in three types: standard adult card, a youth card, and a regional reduced fair permit for seniors and disabled commuters.
According to Candace Carlson, the Regional Project Manager for ORCA system, the idea of a single pass program has been in the works for a while.

When using an ORCA card to ride Link, tap your card at a card reader on a yellow pole before boarding the train. When you get off the train, tap your card again at the ORCA reader. The correct fare will be deducted. Photo by Chad Coleman.

When using an ORCA card to ride Link, tap your card at a card reader on a yellow pole before boarding the train. When you get off the train, tap your card again at the ORCA reader. The correct fare will be deducted. Photo by Chad Coleman.

“In the Puget Sound, there has always been a high degree of commuters using multiple systems to get around. In the past, transportation has depended on flash projects – getting from Point A to Point B by visually showing a pass to the driver,” Carlson explained. “We have come up with a more convenient way to connect Puget Sound commuters and to distribute revenue regionally.”
The all-in-one ORCA card uses smart card technology to automatically account for different fares and transfers on Community Transit, Everett Transit, King County Metro Transit, Kitsap Transit, Pierce Transit, Sound Transit and Washington State Ferries. The ORCA program offers users the advantage of reloading funds, known as the card’s E-purse value. Users can reload an ORCA card online, by phone, mail or at transit or light rail stations around the Puget Sound.
An ORCA card also can be loaded with a transit pass that can be used for unlimited trips during the period the pass is valid.
The card is free if requested before February 1, 2010. It will be available for purchase online, at any of Sound Transit’s customer service offices, at transit and light rail station link TVM (kiosks), or local grocery stores including some Safeway and QFC locations.
While researching a new pass program, Carlson and her team looked elsewhere for implementation ideas. Large cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C ., and Houston all use some form of all-in-one transportation.
“Most major cities have some type of program similar to ORCA but we wanted to take it one step further,” she said. “We have seven separate agencies who have agreed to come together and collaborate on this one program. That is huge.”
The ORCA system will be able to track data in a more efficient way, Carlson said, from the number of morning commuters to the most populated modes of transportation.
“This will allow us to make adjustments and improvement in the most accurate way possible,” she noted.
As the ORCA card program continues to roll out, more options of transportation will be available including Van Pool.
If a card is lost or stolen, the it can be canceled and funds can be transfered to a new card. E-purse funds can be added according to travel needs or can be automatically programmed to upload funds from a direct account on a monthly basis.
“OCRA card users can go online and reload the card’s fare on the Web site and the great thing is that the electronic purse (E-purse) doesn’t expire,” Carlson explained. “With the ORCA program, we are making things better for the customer and it provides us with data from a business standpoint.”
The ORCA card program also offers a number of advantages to business owners and large corporations. ORCA enables businesses to pick the transit products that best fit their business needs while providing them with tools to make it easier to manage their transportation programs. Businesses have the choice of two programs – the Business Passport and Business Choice.
“From a business standpoint, the ORCA card programs just make sense,” Carlson said. “We have already issued 25,000 cards to Microsoft employees. Companies such as Boeing can use the ORCA business Web site to track how much ridership they have to save on cost. For large businesses, this could result in huge savings.”
The Business Passport includes a comprehensive, annual transportation pass program that offers employees options for their commutes. With the Passport option, employees can choose to ride by bus, transit, rail, vanpool and guaranteed ride home service.
The Business Choice option gives employers the discretion to provide ORCA cards to as few or as many commuters as they choose and can load each card with a variety of product options including a monthly pass, E-purse or E-voucher. The advantage of the E-Voucher is that it allows the employer to provide a set value that their employees can convert to an e-purse or monthly pass. If the voucher goes unused for 30 days, the value is refunded to the company.

How to get your ORCA card
Ten customer service offices and three retail outlets are located throughout the four-county ORCA region Visit www.orcacard.com for more information on these locations. ORCA cards purchased from customer service offices and retail outlets are fully functional and immediately ready for use.
You also can order a new ORCA card online at www.orcacard.com or by phone at 1-888-988-6722 or TTY Relay at 711:1-888-889-6368. ORCA cards ordered online or by phone are typically processed and delivered by mail in five to seven business days. Once a new card arrives, it must be tapped on a card reader before it is fully functional and ready for use.

How to use your ORCA card
When using an ORCA card to ride Link, tap your card at a card reader on a yellow pole before boarding the train. Present your valid ORCA card to the fare inspector upon request. When exiting, tap your card again at the card reader at the station to complete your transaction and ensure that the correct fare is deducted.

How to reload an ORCA card
Users can reload an ORCA card at any Link TVM with either a pass or more E-purse value. Simply insert your card in the ORCA card holder and select the product you would like to load onto your existing card. Card reload transactions done on a TVM are immediately processed and ready for use.
You also can reload an ORCA card at an ORCA Customer Service Office or a participating retail outlet or online at www.orcacard.com, 1-888-988-6722.

Lindsay Larin is a writer for the Bellevue Reporter. You can contact her at llarin@bellevuereporter.com.