Dave Ross, of KIRO 97.3FM, invited WSDOT Secretary Paula Hammond, Developer Kemper Freeman, and Larry Phillips of Sound Transit on his show Sept. 28 to discuss regional transportation. Listen to the entire show here.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Mary L. Grady
Islander Aubrey Davis is not a white-haired bureaucrat who tells stories about the past.
No, what you will learn during a conversation with Mr. Davis over a cup of hot chocolate at the new Starbucks on the North end is a man concerned not with the past, but the future.
An island resident for nearly 50 years, Davis has been a key figure in Mercer Island’s history.
Just two other individuals are mentioned more in the pages of the book, “Mercer Island Heritage,” the semi-official written record of the Island. The first is Ben Werner, a fellow city Councilman and mayor of Mercer Island who worked alongside Davis to rein in the scope and the impact of the I-90 project.
The other is Vitas Schmid, a German-born wagon-maker originally from Illinois, who filed a claim for Island land and built a cabin here in 1876.
The story of Schmid, who struggled to keep his claim in this unique and beautiful place, mirrors the story of Davis and the Islanders who took on the then-powerful Washington State Highway Commission in the 1970s.
Davis and others who took the state to task during the massive expansion of I-90 made a profound impact on the quality of life on Mercer Island and established its importance (and his influence) to the regional transportation network.
The 1976 Memorandum of Understanding with the state and others, hammered out in dozens of meetings and hearings, set the standard for public involvement in major civic projects throughout the region ever since.
In 1970, Davis formed a committee to protect the quality of life on the Island as the state set out to expand I-90 across the north end.
The committee and the lawsuit that followed charged that the State Department of Highways had failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and improperly treated citizens whose property was within the project right of way.
The lawsuit halted construction on the East Channel Bridge while the issues were sorted out. Davis knew that working with the other communities affected along the corridor would strengthen not only the position of Islanders but would improve the entire project.
These efforts led to the MOU with the state that gave communities affected by the interstate certain rights, and the standing to object or intervene.
The MOU is still an important document within the ongoing discussions about I-90: from the rights of Islanders to drive alone in the center (express) lanes and the placement of facilities for future transit lanes and stations as well.
Davis has a long and rich professional life.
Davis has been in a leadership role at Group Health Cooperative since he was a founding member in 1947, serving for three years as the CEO. Appointed by Sen. Brock Adams, he headed the Northwest region office of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
He has served on boards and commissions regarding public works throughout his adult life: the Mercer Island City Council, serving as mayor for a four-year term; King County Metro; the Puget Sound Regional Council and many other working advisory groups regarding transportation issues.
In his current role on the board of the Puget Sound Regional Council, Davis keeps looking ahead. Keeping the momentum going on improving our regional transportation is paramount.
Yes, these new transit projects are underway, he said. But there is no time to waste.
“It is not time to sit back,” Davis said. “There is a crisis of funding for future transportation now. Projects underway now have come from sources that are drying up.”
With fewer miles being driven and more efficient vehicles on the road, the gas tax which provided a good surrogate for user fees, is now less effective than before. Tolling and other pricing methods for using roadways are unavoidable, he added. It is the next item on the list.
Now 92, Mr. Davis remains a full and active member in the discussion of growth and change for our region. He aims to keep focused on keeping Islanders and Puget Sound moving forward.
Mary L. Grady is the editor of the Mercer Island Reporter. She can be reached at email@example.com.
By Dean A. Radford
Joni Earl, CEO of Sound Transit, talked in a wide-ranging interview with the Reporter Newspapers recently about the regional transportation agency whose mission it is to build an interlocking system of light rail, commuter rail and long-haul buses. In its early years, there was doubt that Sound Transit would even survive. One of Earl’s first tasks was to announce that the agency was $1 billion in the hole. But under Earl’s leadership, that has all changed. Today, the agency is planning a new transit corridor to the Eastside that could change the way people commute to Seattle and back again for decades to come.
What was the state of the agency when you took over in early 2001?
I started in October 2000 as chief operating officer. I had been with the agency about three weeks when it was clear that we had a cost problem. But we didn’t know how big it was. I was put in charge as the new eyes and ears in the agency to look at the project. I was the one, with consultant help and a lot of staff help, that about six or seven weeks later announced the $1 billion cost overrun and the three-year-schedule delay. That was in December. Bob [Bob White, the agency's executive director] left after we got the $500 million grant from the Clinton administration. He then resigned at the next board meeting and I was appointed acting. My view of the state of the agency at that point was we had lost credibility with the public. Pretty major credibility. The Board of Directors was angry because they put themselves out there in support of the agency and the project. They were really disappointed because they would say they were not getting the information to know they had that deep of a problem. The Federal Transit Administration, which was the funding agency for the grant, was very angry. Our senior senator, Patty Murray, wasn’t very happy with us. Employee morale was quite bad, to say the least. But two things held true through it all that helped us. The vision for light rail was the sustaining issue. People were mad at Sound Transit, but they still supported light rail. The vision to get light rail in the region was never lost. Never. None of the polling. What I was asked to do was to take the steps necessary to save the project and rebuild the agency.
What were your initial marching orders to get the project back on track?
When the board talked with me about the acting position, I knew enough at that point that we needed a new cost-estimating system. We needed a new project-control system. We needed a way to track costs accumulatively to know what was happening on our project, because that is what had gone wrong. I needed to make a few personnel changes. I had to rebuild the federal government trust that Sound Transit could deliver the project. One of the major tests for the federal government is what they call technical and financial capability capacity. So, we ended up having a two-year audit starting right at that point by the U.S. inspector general. What I tried to do and I think collectively we did it together because I had very strong board leadership and support was to take the internal steps we needed to take to shore up our costs and our systems to manage these projects.
What did you tell your employees?
One of the reasons morale was so bad is that we had just started commuter rail in September 2000. The commuter rail part of the agency was flying high. We had started the bus program in 1999. So two-thirds of the agency, since we do much more than light rail, were delivering. And then here’s the biggest part of the project for the agency was the one that was taking us down. That was very difficult internal morale issues that we had to work through. My message to the employees and perhaps one of my greatest strengths I brought internal to the agency is that I am a big communicator. Whether it was to pull all employees together for a quick all staff or e-mails. I was very clear with the employees that if they would do their jobs, you perform, I will deal with the external and the politics of the board and all of those issues. Here is my expectation. I was very clear with my directors about being transparent with information. It doesn’t matter how bad the story is. We have to fix it. I told employees in a meeting with 150 employees that nobody would get fired for pointing out problems or issues or making errors (unless they made a whole bunch of them over and over). But they would get fired if they withheld information because we couldn’t fix something that we didn’t know existed. That is kind of what had happened at the 10,000-foot level.
So what had to happen next?
There was no silver lining to getting our credibility back with the public, other than start delivering the project. Pass the test. Pass the audits, which we did. But it took awhile. Get the feds to have confidence in us. When they have the confidence in us, we get the federal share. If we have the federal share, we can build the project. The other big piece in 2001 was the board made the decision after we did all the analysis to break the project into segments. Just opening the 14 miles. Then the airport in December. Then the university. That was all one big mega project. We were a startup. We were a brand new agency. Nobody really thought about what it takes when you are a new bureaucracy. Everything was new. There was a new HR system. You have to hire people. You have to have office space. You have to have telephones, computers. They didn’t have any of that. And they had a new 10-year plan to build $4 billion of capital in 10 years. Three new lines of service. We are the only agency in the country that I am aware of that was supposed to go from zero to a $4 billion program in 10 years and deliver service all over a three-county region. It had never been tried before.
How did Sound Transit get to the point where it was in a billion-dollar hole and already behind when it hoped to begin light rail service?
There were three fundamental problems. They just didn’t have the infrastructure in place to track costs. Real estate values were going up on the capital side. The real estate people might know it. They didn’t have a good project-control system in a state-of-the-art way to track costs. The second problem was that you had a situation where you are out talking to communities and there wasn’t what we call really good scope control. You would go out to one community and they would want a, b, c or d. You have all this money. You don’t have a good tracking system. You want to please the community or please the city you’re trying to build a project in because you have to get permits. I know the agency didn’t manage the scope of the project well in those early decisions. More things were promised than there was money in the budget to do. But nobody realized it because we didn’t have a good tracking system. The third thing was the agency had a lot of really good transit people and good engineers. What they didn’t have was someone who had run the organization part of the organization. Bob White [Earl's predecessor as executive director], to his credit came to that realization. He created the chief operating officer position. I had no transit background. I had local government background. I had run things as a city manager and deputy executive [Snohomish County]. My background is finance and accounting. I didn’t have transit experience. When he hired me, he said, “I have a lot of transit planners. I have people who know how to build projects. I need someone who knows how to run the agency in terms of the business of the agency, while others are planning and building projects.” There was no fraud. There was just a series of coming together with a really aggressive plan with really good people who didn’t have the basic infrastructure they needed to go about it.
In all the darkest days, did you ever think this isn’t worth it, that I am going to quit.
It is hard to go back to that time, although so much of it is very vivid for me. I went for literally a five-month period where I had no day off, not a Saturday or not a Sunday. My average day was 18 hours. I had five days where I never went home. There were 24-hour days when I just called my husband to bring me clothes. Sure during that time in the wee dark hours of the night, and there were other people on the staff who were working with me side by side. So there were times when I asked, What am I doing? I had never been tested like this before. I didn’t know if I had the capacity or capability to do this. For me what really stood out is I knew from the day I started here and from the people here at the agency that we had really good people here. We had a strong board that really believed in our mission. I was in a good place in that I didn’t own the problem. I didn’t create the problem. That gives you a little bit of freedom to make really hard decisions. To make personnel decisions. Or just say this is how it’s going to be. We don’t have time. We are just going to do it. You have a little bit of freedom in that circumstance. I had to go back to Congress to testify. I had a hostile chair. Congressman Norm Dicks went with me. He introduced me to the chair. He sat next to me for an hour and a half while I got peppered with questions just to support me. Sen. [Patty] Murray was just amazing support. So I just felt really good people put a lot on the line and I wanted to help them deliver it. I think for the region we needed the project. At that point it took us 30 years from Forward Thrust to get to this point. And failure had such consequence for the future of this region.
Why did it take so long for the region to come an agreement on high-capacity transit and start building?
We the region, whoever the region is, going back to Forward Thrust had a vision about the need to do high-capacity transit. But it always feels very expensive on a project basis. Out of the personal taxpayer’s pocket, it’s a pretty high investment for some people. Cost has been an issue. But we also have had wars over the years of roads vs. transit, bus vs. rail, light rail vs. monorail or vs. commuter rail. We love to debate issues. Bob White used to call it that you are constantly talking to a parade. You will start a conversation in year one. By the time you get to year five, there are new people who have joined the parade. There wasn’t from I could tell until the early 90s, after Forward Thrust, there really wasn’t a jelling around what’s the mechanism to get it built. Greg Nickels and Cynthia Sullivan [two members of the King County Council] in the mid 1980s did an advisory ballot that said, “Yes, we want it.” That, I think, was the start. That is why Greg feels so good about getting it open on his watch. They were the first ones after Jim Ellis [considered the godfather of Forward Thrust] and Forward Thrust to put it out to the voters of King County. It has taken strong leadership to stay with the vision. It would have been very easy for our board to collapse under the weight of the criticism in 2001 and say never mind, we aren’t going to do light rail. We will stick with what we are doing. There were many people trying to take us out as an agency. Some in Olympia. There was legislation introduced to break up Sound Transit. Don’t do light rail. Give bus stuff back to the local agencies. Commuter rail: Have DOT [the state transportation department] or somebody do it. But our board was steadfast.
Sound Transit chairman Greg Nickels lost his job as Seattle mayor by failing to make it past August’s primary election. What impact will Nickels’ loss have on the forward progress of Sound Transit?
I think Greg as a regional leader is going to be a big loss for the region about the vision that he has had for high-capacity transit. I can only hope that whoever wins the mayor’s race steps into the vision for high-capacity transit for the region. We have a very strong commitment on our board to our mission. And our mission is really both in the legislation that created us but also in the votes by the public. We were successful with Greg’s leadership as chair back in 2008 to get the Sound Transit 2 package passed. We now have a voter mandate to go build that project. We don’t lose commitment because Greg is no longer going to be on our board. Our mission has been defined by the voters. And we have to deliver it. And the board is very committed to that.
When do you think Sound Transit really turned the corner, when you knew that it had put behind it its financial troubles and was ready to move forward with construction?
It was when we got the clean audit from the inspector general in spring 2003. We got the federal grant in January 2001. But then the new Congress came in. Congressman Rogers as the new chair of the House Transportation Committee requested that it be put on hold. As soon as that got put on hold, even that billion-dollar cost overrun that we announced in December got impacted because now our cash flow got impacted because the federal share wasn’t going to come in on schedule. That put us in a state of, Oh, Oh. We have a plan the board just adopted in January. We got a grant, but now it was put on hold until we could pass the audit. That audit took two years. During that two-year window we put in all these new systems in terms of project management and project control. What happened when we got that clean audit, it was like an independent authority has now said Sound Transit has its act together. During that time we were continuing with the design and we were moving the project forward. But we couldn’t break ground and start construction until we got the federal grant. To get that federal grant you needed to get the clean audit. The grant was for $500 million. That was the 21 percent share of our funding.
How did you answer critics before – and now – that the public’s money would have been better spent on more buses and more roads?
We definitely have people on the trains. Often critics and proponents tend to potentially define light rail as the solution. The way I look at all public transportation is that it’s part of the solution. What we are doing is providing alternatives to sitting in your car in congestion. We are the multi-modal side. There are a lot of people who are always going to be in their cars for some reason. Some people define transit as everybody can get rid of every car that they ever had. I don’t think that’s a realistic goal. Our goal is alternatives. What light rail does is give you predictability. It gives you frequent service. We are running every 7 and 1/2 minutes during the peak hour and about 10 to 15 minutes to a half hour depending on the time of day on weekends. You are creating a regional spine of rail. Your bus service can feed it and serve other parts. What you don’t want to do is have tons of duplicate service between bus and rail. It costs a lot to build. But once you’re in operation, it takes one operator to carry 800 people if the trains are completely full. To carry the same number of people would take 9 or 10 operators, depending on the size of the bus. Your labor costs in terms of rail vs. bus for the long-haul operations are much cheaper to operate for rail on a per-passenger basis. The other thing is a very clean technology. It’s much cleaner. It’s electricity. It’s totally zero greenhouse gas emissions. To me, it’s good for the environment. I love buses, so this isn’t an antibus vs. rail. The other thing that rail has done is that it can create that nexus for development around it and higher densities around rail stations. Bus routes can change. Bus routes can move So there is more predictability for siting decisions and transit-oriented development around rail. Those rails aren’t moving. That service is there. Those are some of the things I do say to them about rail vs. bus.
Looking to the future, what can South King County expect in new service from Sound Transit over the next 10 to 20 years?
We have five subareas that we track costs and build projects in within the three counties. South King County and Pierce County are the only two areas that have commuter rail, bus and bus capital infrastructure and light rail. They are already getting all three modes of transit that Sound Transit provides, because they have had commuter rail since 2000 and buses since 1999 and now light rail. They have a lot of transit right in that area. There are about 100,000 new hours of additional bus service in Sound Transit 2. There are the extensions of light rail. On the commuter rail side we are going to get four more round trips. We are going to go from 9 to 13. We will phase in those over about the next five years. We are also going to extend the platforms for commuter rail. We can do seven-car trains. We will extend all the platforms to eight cars. We are going to add what equates to about 65 percent more capacity to commuter rail between trips and just capacity by just adding another train car to our sets. There is still a lot more service to come.
The future on the Eastside is a little more complex. Under Sound Transit 2, Eastside residents will get their own light rail on a new rail corridor and more bus service. Describe the work on the Eastside.
Probably the biggest project in the Sound Transit 2 plan is the East Link project. That is light rail that comes in from the International District station [in south Seattle], goes across I-90 to Bellevue and then to Overlake Transit Center, which is Microsoft headquarters. We don’t have the money to go all the way to downtown Redmond. But we are doing the planning all the way to downtown Redmond. We are in the final environmental impact statement process. We have looked at a combo of about 19 different routes for this corridor. The board selected a preferred alignment, not a final alignment, that we are starting some engineering on. When I look at East Link, the three big challenges in that project are we have to negotiate an agreement with the state Department of Transportation because we will get the center lanes on the I-90 bridge [over Lake Washington]. So that has controversy to it. We also believe that was a condition in the 1979 agreement and the record of decision from the federal government when Brock Adams approved the construction of the bridge that those are high-capacity transit lanes in the center. When you come off the bridge and go into Bellevue, there are community groups that want one alignment that the city and Sound Transit so far have not selected in the preferred path. So, there are neighborhood issues. Where you go through downtown Bellevue there is a huge issue about whether to have a tunnel or not. The city wants a tunnel. We don’t have money for a tunnel. We have been clear about that. We are still looking at that issue. But there are lots of decisions similar to the ones that the board had to make over the last 12 years on trying to build this first part of the alignment.
What will you do to ease impacts on Eastside business and traffic during and after construction of light rail?
We can’t specifically answer that now because we don’t know the exact alignment or the construction impacts. As you do project development, you define the design and the impacts and you go through that. I know we have learned a lot by the construction we have already done. We are just continually getting better at working with the business communities. Our staff is doing a great job. We are right in the heart of a business district on Capitol Hill [in Seattle]. We do on-the-street outreach. There are a variety of things. If we are impacting businesses, like if there are relocations, there are a lot of federal guidelines that we have to follow to do that. We will use a multiple number of tools. We built the big Bellevue direct-access project right off of Northeast Eighth Street and 405. There was a lot of concern about business impacts. That just went beautifully. The key is working with the businesses and working with the business organizations like the Bellevue Downtown Association and Bellevue chamber and individual property owners on the city. I am totally confident that we can build that project with good mitigation and tools so that businesses don’t suffer any more than they have to. There is always pain with construction. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a road or transit project. There is always pain. Being really up front and transparent about it is the key.
What are some of the guiding principles that the Sound Transit Board of Directors will follow in making its final decision on which alignment option, including whether there is a tunnel, to pick for Bellevue?
It will be a combo. It will be: Can we afford it? That is the first one. We were very clear that we didn’t have money for a tunnel. The cost estimate that was in the Sound Transit 2 plan was based on an aerial alignment. The general rule of thumb is that surface is least expensive. Aerial is the next expensive and tunnel is the most expensive. We had wiggle room in the cost estimate because we picked the aerial. We didn’t pick the lowest cost, which gave us some flexibility. They will look at effectiveness. There is one thing to build it, and it’s another to operate it. You want to make sure your alignment is easy to operate. You don’t want a bunch of sharp turns. Are we locating stations in places where it serves people and businesses? You don’t build this stuff to have the trains empty. They will look at all of that and then the impacts. One of the debates about the tunnel is that there were two or three different tunnel alternatives. One is much more impactful in the community than another. You have tradeoffs of impact and cost in your construction methodology. When the board made the decision in May on the preferred alignment, its action actually laid out some direction in terms of what we want for more information on various construction methodology. They asked for more research between the various alternatives that the city of Bellevue wanted versus what they selected. How many businesses are impacted? Do we have to relocate businesses? All of that will play into their decision. We asked the city of Bellevue, If you want a tunnel, show us how you are going to help fund it. We can’t fund it on our dollars.
So, without additional funding from Bellevue, is a tunnel simply not a viable option?
I don’t think we know that yet. That’s premature to know that. The cost estimate was aerial which was more expensive than surface. The city worked with us on other parts of the alignment that might be less expensive. We have to look through all the analysis before we will be able to say that. We are being clear, that as of now, we don’t have the money. It’s probably the biggest decision in front of the board in the next 12 months.
How will light rail ease the general commute between the Eastside and Seattle?
We have done a traffic analysis with the Department of Transportation that shows if you do nothing (mainly on the I-90 corridor) and just population growth and all that projected stuff happens that that commute is going to significantly worsen over the next 20 years. When you put light rail in there, there is a pre-project to light rail that we have to do which is to build two-way HOV lanes on the bridge. We have all the federal approvals for that. It is a joint project we have been working with the state transportation department on that. Phase one of that is already built. Before we can take the center lanes, we have to build new HOV lanes. If you think about it, the center lanes are reversible now. They are not working two ways. And the commute over time has really shifted. Those now work reversible as if peak demand is going certain ways. It’s now starting to be about 50-50. So you really need two-way, all-day HOV lanes like you have elsewhere on the freeway. We have to build those lanes. I really want to underscore this. We are not impacting the existing general-purpose lanes. There are three lanes on the bridge for general single-occupant cars. Those three lanes stay. We build new HOV lanes. Then we put in high-capacity transit. For the future, we have so much more capacity to move people across that infrastructure. I just think it’s going to change the commute patterns between east and west in this region in a significant way over time.
What was a key lesson that you learned from building that first 14 miles of light rail that will help you move forward with the East Link?
My big motto is under promise and over deliver. [She laughs.] Because that is not where we started. A key lesson: I think being very clear and upfront and transparent about what we can and can’t afford to do. One of our challenges and this isn’t unique to Sound Transit. We have to get permits in every jurisdiction we go through. We don’t have any rights to come into downtown Bellevue and build this project. Everything is a negotiation and a partnership about getting permits. They can’t unreasonably withhold a permit. But they certainly have major influence, just like the city of Seattle did in building light rail in their city. That is a real challenge for us. A lesson for me is that we have to be very clear, which I think we have been on this tunnel. That is an example. We can’t afford it. If you want it, then you have to help us get there. My motto through all of ST2 with the board and other settings: 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. That’s how Sound Transit lost its credibility, I think. Those days are over, at least on my watch. For however long that is.
How much closer will we be to getting rid of our cars?
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. But I am not one of those who believes that people will get rid of their cars. I fundamentally don’t believe that. The option to do it will be much greater. [Earl commutes to her Seattle office from Tacoma, where she lives.] I am one of those perfect examples where I have learned and it has not been easy, which I think is a problem with transit that we are still working on as an industry, to figure out how to get around a region without your car. It’s doable in this region between biking, walking and public transit. You can do it. We have not found all the right tools to make it super easy. Part of it is that we have so many options.
Dean A. Radford is Editor of the Renton Reporter. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Dean A. Radford
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 email@example.com.
By Joshua Adam Hicks
Sound Transit’s light-rail planning represents a progressive approach to mass transit, but the public has long been divided over whether the concepts hold any virtue.
Few people have more of a stake in the fight than Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, who owns around eight percent of the real-estate in downtown Bellevue.
The tendency with voters has been to reject all light-rail initiatives during the first go round, and then accept a paired-down version in the next election.
Freeman, however, has been firm in his stance on the regional program, voicing an unequivocal dislike for it.
“It’s as far off track as anything I’ve ever seen government propose,” he said. “We’re being sold an impossible dream.”
Freeman commissions experts to study mass transit, and he says it’s clear from what they’ve told him that rail-based transit systems only work in areas with extremely high densities – places like New York City, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
He notes that metropolitan Seattle is far from ever reaching that level, with 2,200 people per square mile compared with New York’s roughly 60,000 people per square mile.
“We’re trying to apply (rail-based transit) where we have a fraction of the density,” he said. “We’re using the wrong tools. It’s like using a sledge hammer to set a tack.”
Freeman is also skeptical about Sound Transit’s ridership projections. He argues that the overwhelming majority of metropolitan Seattleites – around 95 percent – will always be dependent on the car.
“If light rail came anywhere close to their marketing in reality, I would be the biggest supporter that there is,” he said. “This thing is a complete farce.”
Freeman has his own version of the ideal regional transportation system, but it starts with a concept every bit as divisive as light rail. He’s calling for more roads, specifically a six-percent increase in lane miles that he estimates would reduce congestion by 36 percent.
From there, the Freeman plan gets more transit-oriented, with a drastic increase in buses and bus rapid transit.
Freeman says a bus-rapid transit system, which uses dedicated lanes to bypass congestion, could be implemented in under three years at a fraction of the cost of light rail.
He suggests buses can attract more riders because of their ability to reach every nook and cranny of the region.
“There is no other idea, for this teeny investment, that produces more transit trips than that one,” he said.
Sound Transit disagrees, claiming all those new buses would only get tied up in traffic once they reach the city.
“Nothing provides the reliability that rail does,” said Bruce Gray, a spokesman for the agency.
Freeman’s plan also calls for free transit ridership, which he claims would increase the number of users while still costing less than building and operating light rail.
Drastic increases in vanpools and bike lanes are also needed, according to his plan.
Freeman, ever the businessman, is averse to cost overruns, so he’s leveled much criticism at Sound Transit for going $1 billion over its initial Central Link construction budget.
All told, Sound Transit expects to exceed its original construction budget for light rail from Sea-Tac to the University District by $3 billion.
The agency is also far behind its initial timeline for that segment, which expired in 2006. The route to the University District is not expected to be completed until 2016.
Gray suggests Sound Transit’s early mistakes were merely the result of growing pains. The agency adjusting its forecasts in 2001, and brought in new leadership with CEO Joni Earl.
“In 1996, we were a brand new agency with three different lines of business,” Gray said. “We have 13 years of experience now.”
Sound Transit opened Central Link in July on time and $100 million under budget according to the revised plan.
That doesn’t cut it for Freeman.
“They’re so lucky they have an understanding public that’s willing to look the other way when they’re off by billions of dollars,” he said. “They can laugh at their rookie mistakes, but they’re all at our expense.”
One positive sign for Sound Transit is that construction costs aren’t rising as severely as they once were. Recent bids for University Link came in below the agency’s estimates.
“I think the trend is very good when you talk about light-rail construction,” Gray said.
As for whether there’s any debating left to be done over the virtues of light rail, Sound Transit doesn’t think so.
“The voters have pretty much spoken regarding our critics,” Gray said.
That may be true, but Freeman isn’t finished. He joined the Eastside Transportation Association in filing for a writ of prohibition to stop Sound Transit from using Interstate 90 for light rail.
The request, filed July 17 in the state Supreme Court, alleges that Sound Transit’s light rail plans would violate the 18th Amendment to the state’s constitution, which states that roads built with gas taxes can only be used for road traffic.
There was no determination at the Reporter deadline about whether the full court would hear the case.
Joshua Adam Hicks is a writer for the Bellevue Reporter. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Laura Pierce
In the future, you could be paying for your right to use roads the same way you pay your utilities — a bill based on exactly how much you use.
According to Paula Hammond, secretary of transportation, and the state’s highest transportation official, the technology to do that isn’t that far down the road.
“It’s 10 to 15 years out,” she said, noting that kind of direct-user fee could be part of the equation for future transportation funding.
But in the meantime, there is a complex – not to mention expensive – series of transportation needs that the Puget Sound area has to resolve, or at least come to terms with.
Traffic congestion; freight issues; super-efficient hybrid vehicles slowing the state’s gas tax to more of a trickle: all of these elements are adding up to a Gordian’s Knot of worries on which the state is working to get a handle.
Politics played a part
Part of the issues today come from a lack of decision-making years earlier. Hammond described “a good 15 years of stagnation,” in the state transportation system, starting in the 1980s. It’s only been over the last five years that Washington has regained its focus to aggressively begin addressing for advances to its system, she said.
That earlier lag, Hammond noted, was due partly to lack of a clear direction.
“Puget Sound politics – people say it’s like no other,” Hammond said, noting for years it was difficult for lawmakers to find a common vision on what, exactly, had to happen to advance the state’s road system.
“I think that lack of decision-making and second-guessing, all of that has not served us well,” she said, adding, “we love to debate things.”
It wasn’t always like that. In the 1970s, Washington road-planning was ahead of the curve, including its development of high-occupancy vehicle Lanes.
“There was great vision in the 1970s,” Hammond said, noting the HOV lanes were a significant advance in transportation.
Today, she said, “we have a 300-mile (core HOV system) and 250 miles of that is in place.”
That HOV system continues to be a major asset in the Puget Sound transportation system.
Washington has invested more than $1.5 billion in state and federal funding over the past 40 years in its HOV lanes. The lanes continue to provide a steam valve for congestion and an incentive for carpoolers, today moving about 35 percent of people on the roads in 19 percent of the cars. But just like everywhere else on state roads, congestion in the HOV lanes is increasing, thanks to more drivers, and SUVs with greater carrying capacity.
But there’s a fix in sight, and the way it’s funded could be a blueprint for the way future transportation needs in Washington are covered.
Hammond called attention to one of DOT’s latest projects: high-occupancy tolling lanes, or HOT Lanes. It’s a concept allowing non-carpooling drivers to use the HOV lanes, by charging them for the privilege.
For more than a year DOT has been operating a test segment of State Route 167 in South King County. And it’s working.
“What we’ve learned over the year or so we’ve had it – we saw people buying their way in for a dollar, to get a 10-minute savings on travel,” Hammond said, noting 30,000 people a month are paying to use the lane. “We’ve learned people think it’s worth something to pay to get in to reduce their travel time.”
Given the promise of HOT lanes have shown, DOT is working to expand HOT lanes on more of Puget Sound’s clogged roadways – starting with I-405, where road-expansion work is ongoing, and HOV lanes are already present.
In terms of traffic flow on the heavily used highway, “you see a natural break near Bellevue,” Hammond said. “But we’re looking at the entire (405) corridor. And as it comes through the 167 interchange and carries down there as well.”
The project could be constructed in pieces, so drivers using one segment actually would be paying for constructing the next segment.
Hammond said the Legislature has asked DOT to analyze the project this legislative session, and then to come back with a report for the next session.
“So we’re doing the work now and coming back in 2010, to see if they’ll give us the authority to proceed with that project,” she said.
A new funding concept
The concept of paying as you go, to fund specific projects like the HOT lanes, is gaining serious momentum as a payment solution for transportation issues.
Right now, the state gas tax is the main source of dollars – and it’s a dwindling one.
For all the good things today’s fuel-efficient cars represent, it also means more drivers pay less at the pump – and therefore pump fewer dollars into the transportation system.
“We see it’s a loser,” Hammond said, adding the gas tax also fails to keep up with inflation.
Given the realities of funding – tolling is going to become more prevalent, Hammond said.
One event that brought that into clearer focus was when voters balked in 2007 at the Roads and Transit measure – a major transportation package that combined resources for improvements in roads, bus service and rail.
While Hammond said there was a lot of debate about why the measure failed, it was a telling moment when Puget Sound voters the next year passed the Sound Transit 2 measure, taxing themselves for a major expansion of light rail in the region. “That was good information – people did want the transit measure to pass,” Hammond said.
Of RTID, “I think it was too much of a taxpayer investment,” Hammond said. “But I don’t think people said they didn’t want those projects.”
And with those projects still on the drawing board, there needs to be a revenue source to fund them.
“We are gravitating toward tolling,” she added.
When asked how she personally would resolve the funding issue, Hammond said drivers investing directly in the roads they use is a critical part of the equation.
“I think the users need to pay,” she explained. “They need to pay for the value they get out of that system. The cost to drive a mile in Wenatchee isn’t close to what it costs to drive a mile in Seattle.”
Top road projects
When asked what she felt the highest-priority road projects are Puget Sound, Hammond listed four, with the focus on safety: The Alaskan Way viaduct replacement, the Highway 520 floating bridge, completing the 405 corridor and increasing the efficiency of Interstate 5 as it runs through Puget Sound. Hammond confessed that the 520 floating bridge, due for completion in 2014, and the viaduct, which should be under construction and open to traffic by 2015, have both caused her sleepless nights.
Future transportation picture
Hammond pointed to a future transportation picture in the Puget Sound region that encompasses many things – from a cultural shift toward alternative modes of transportation, to technology making it easier for people to say where they are working from.
“I think we’re already seeing the transition now,” she said, of people leaving their cars in the garage and taking the train or bus, although these modes, she added will never replace personal vehicles.
“Sound Transit has opened its first (light rail) link, and we’re seeing heavy commuter rail use already. Local transit services has seen growth,” she said, adding that as technology continues to improve, “I think you’re going to see some people altering their work schedules, and doing more work from home.”
And as far as transportation funding in the future, she said, “I do think we’ll see more tolling.”
But state officials need to tread lightly in ushering in those changes, especially when it comes to how public dollars are being spent.
“We need to take our time to have this public conversation,” Hammond said. “Until we explain that well to people, we’re not going to have that public buy-in.”
Laura Pierce is Editor of the Kent Reporter. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
By Craig Groshart
Sen. Patty Murray knows the impact of growth. As a child growing up in Bothell, she remembers the sign as people entered the city: Population 998.
“And look at it now,” she marvels of the city that now has more than 30,000 residents.
All that growth is wonderful for the economy, she said, but it has crated a “huge transportation problem.”
Fortunately, Murray is well-positioned to do something about it.
As chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, Murray’s job is to write the nation’s transportation funding bill every year. That’s a billion-dollar task.
Among other things, she helps direct funding to maintain and improve the interstate highway system, modernize airports, expand public transit in urban and rural areas, and invest in transportation research and safety programs.
“You have a community that’s growing,” Murray said of this region, “and we’re paying attention to it.”
Murray has been the state’s Congressional leader in securing federal funding for Sound Transit, including a Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) in 2003 which secured $500 million in federal funding for the Link Light Rail project in Puget Sound.
She also has brought nearly $700 million to the state for roads, transit, shipyards and ferries in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Murray doesn’t do it in a vacuum. When she sits down with mayors and business interests from around here, she tells them, ‘you guys have to prioritize what’s important for you,’” Murray said.
“If people can’t agree, there’s a lot of other communities who want the funds,” Murray added.
However, these days, those funds are become more and more scarce as the federal government faces the same recession as every other government agency – and everyone else, for that matter.
At the federal level, the push and pull is between urban and rural, transit and highways, bike trails considered or not.
“It’s a funding formula battle,” Murray noted. “It’s not partisan. You fight for the most you can get for your state.”
The bottom line for Murray and others in Congress is that “we don’t have enough gas-tax receipts,” she said.
More fuel-efficient cars are being produced, people are driving less, those who are laid off aren’t driving much at all. With less gasoline being consumed, less money flows into the federal treasury, meaning less is available to help pay for local transportation projects.
If you’re in Congress, there aren’t any easy answers, Murray said.
How do you raise the gas tax in a recession?” Murray asked. The answer is, you don’t.
Congress needs a plan that enough members with enough courage will vote for, she said, “or we cut everybody back.”
That alternative, she noted, “would hurt Washington state like you wouldn’t believe. This is not going to be easy,” she added.
To complicate matters, the Senate Finance Committee also is involved and, as Murray noted, “they’re a little bit entangled with health care.”
The short-term answer probably will see the Senate pass several temporary extensions of the current transportation bill, Murray said.
Though much is made in the press of what some call “earmarks,” – remember the bridge in Alaska to nowhere? – that isn’t the boondoggle many think it is. In reality, Murray said, less that one percent of the federal highway money goes to special projects.
All senators are asked to give her committee priorities. She has hers, too.
“If it doesn’t pass the smell test,” she said of a request, “I go back to them and they have to really justify it before it gets into my committee.”
Murray said she does respect senators who say ‘yes, this is the priority. I’ve been to the community and talked to every one there. I’m willing to defend it on the Senate floor and I’m willing to stand for reelection on it because it’s that important to me.’
Still, she said, with a full Senate committee of competing points of view, “it’s not easy to get anything through.”
If somebody offers an amendment and it can’t be defended, “it comes out,” Murray said.
The going then gets tougher when the transportation bill goes to the Senate floor “where the same process happens.” Next, the Senate bill must be squared with a House version.
It’s pretty thoroughly vetted,” Murray said of the process.
If things weren’t bad enough, they’re made worse by the bad economy. The Transportation Committee, she said, has only half the money previously available for such projects.
“So I spend most of my time saying ‘no.’ before it ever comes before my committee,” she said.
Nonetheless, Murray has been able to find money for regional transit and transportation projects.
She secured over $110 million for Sound Transit’s University Link and Central Link segments. The money will help provide the first-ever light rail link between downtown Seattle and the University of Washington.
Another $9.3 million has been allocated for the Bellevue to Redmond Bus Rapid Transit project. That work will involve a 9.25-mile corridor that will run streetside between downtown Bellevue and downtown Redmond. The project will provide all-day, rapid transit between the two growing urban centers.
Other money will help establish bus rapid transit service between Tukwila and Federal Way.
Murray also has taken a tour of the Bel-Red Corridor in Bellevue that is envisioned to have light rail and a change of use from light industrial to residential and commercial.
With transportation needs still great but the money more limited, Murray says there’s more pressure on various groups to come together and agree on a project.
When they come in with business leaders, labor leaders, community leaders, when they’ve done their homework, “there is a much better chance of getting it financed,” Murray said.
Of course, she noted, sometimes that agreement doesn’t happen until the night before it has to because people don’t want to give in.
How does she get them to do it?
“I used to teach preschool,” she laughed.
Craig Groshart is editor of the Bellevue Reporter. He can be contacted at 425-453-4233 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Jake Lynch
If you’re looking at the history and future of transportation and transit projects around Seattle, Jim Hebert is an interesting guy to talk to.
As the founder of research company Jim Hebert Research, the economist and Professor of Business has worked for a wide range of clients, from government agencies like Sound Transit and King County Metro, to cities, including Seattle, Bellevue and Redmond, and multinational companies, including Toyota. He was even hired by the attorneys defending Gary Ridgway, better known as the Green River Killer.
His clients pay him for his insight — to study what is really happening on the ground, to uncover trends, patterns of spending, of consumption, and, pertinent to transportation, of ridership, travel habits, and work and lifestyle choices.
In this capacity he was a part of the team that designed the southern most sections of the newly opened light rail from Seattle to Tukwila.
But far from being an agency number cruncher, Hebert has allegiances and connections, particularly in the Bellevue business community.
He is a former board member of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce and Bellevue Downtown Association.
On the wall of his Bellevue office is a framed newspaper article heralding well known Eastside businessman and creator of Bellevue Square, Kemper Freeman, a friend as well as a business associate.
Freeman is one of the driving forces behind the Eastside Transportation Association (ETA), a group with a history of opposing public transit initiatives, particularly light rail.
It is Freeman’s name on the writ of prohibition the ETA launched against Gov. Christine Gregoire recently to stop Sound Transit using lane space on the Interstate 90 for an Eastside expansion.
(He likens Freeman’s battle against Sound Transit as “David against Goliath,” with Freeman playing the role of David.)
This is the same Sound Transit that Hebert’s wife, Cynthia Sullivan, was once a board member of.
During her time on the King County Council, Sullivan was a passionate advocate of light rail in the area, and once said “we are going to get it built. I am not going to back away from it.”
So possibly more than any other figure, Hebert represents the diversity of interests all jostling for control of the area’s transportation future – business people, politicians, engineers, and lobbyists.
“At times they are on the same page,” he said. “Generally it is an adversarial relationship.”
The way Hebert sees it, the transportation plans currently on the drawing board do not adequately connect with the patterns of work and lifestyle that he is documenting – particularly the growing pattern of the “reverse commute,” people who live in Seattle and work on the Eastside, rather than the other way around.
“This is a very interesting phenomenon,” Hebert said. “When we lived in North Wedgwood, my wife would be able to catch the bus to her work in Seattle, but I would have to drive to work in Bellevue. That pattern has continued. There are more desktops on the Eastside than rooftops, it’s become an employment center. The leadership has chosen to build businesses here, and the employees have followed.”
Hebert said that high house prices on the Eastside, and the appeal to young people of Seattle’s urban experience, have accentuated this trend.
“The real estate market will tell you that people will drive to where they qualify for a mortgage,” he said. “Essentially, Snohomish, Seattle, Pierce counties, have become the suburbs of the Eastside. It’s a mega trend.”
Though these are ideas familiar to many, particularly Eastside workers and residents, Hebert said transportation planners are not taking them on board.
“This is very disconcerting, this disconnect with suburban communities,” he said. “They don’t realize the model is changing, and they need to adapt. The public won’t change. When people lead, the leadership should follow.”
He said that the light rail concept was making false assumptions about the American public, and, as a result, was not popular among Eastside business people.
“You have to ask yourself, why is the Eastside business community not supporting a service that they don’t have to pay for? Because they don’t see the benefit for themselves and their employees,” Hebert said. “They see it as only serving those it’s convenient to.”
He added the light rail plan assumed that people would walk a certain distance to get to a station.
“Studies have shown that the average American individual will not walk further than 1100 feet,” he said. “This is not Europe.”
Hebert said that he personally was interested in other means of reducing congestion on Eastside roads.
In his office, employees go home in two shifts, at 5 p.m. and at 9 p.m.
Employees are given bus passes, and those leaving at 9 p.m. are driven to the Bellevue Park and Ride.
He said employers should be looking at things like encouraging their employees to do their shopping, or fitness workouts, after work.
“This balances out the peak flows,” Hebert said. “It is about changing lifestyle to match traffic patterns.”
But, he admitted, public transportation usage constitutes a very small percentage of trips from and to the Eastside.
“The public understands one bus will replace plenty of cars. But not their car,” he said.
Hebert said he had noticed people are buying fewer cars, driving their old cars longer, and taking into account gas prices by combining trips.
Whilst shedding the car in favor of public transit is an effective cost saving change, Hebert said Eastsiders “work around the calendar, rather than the checkbook.”
Which brings the conversation to tolls, particularly variable tolls, where as roads become more congested the toll price increases, encouraging drivers to use less congested routes.
“As an economist and a researcher, this is a variable that allows us to manage demand,” Hebert said. “Tolls are very price elastic. But you have to consider is it fair? Is it just to all? It comes back to the checkbook and the calendar. For an attorney making $520 an hour, then the cost of a toll is minimal if it gets them there faster. But for a younger person, maybe in an entry level position, then the toll is going to be more of a concern.”
Hebert said that, given the car is still king when it comes to getting around the Eastside, the condition of roads was a big concern.
In a recent survey of his, the question of how well roads are maintained scored a ‘D’, and about 47 percent of respondents gave “extremely low” scores on things like resurfacing, striping and signage.
But, in the bigger picture, Eastside residents have other, more pressing things on their plate.
According to Hebert’s research into the top priorities for people at the moment, transportation rated equal fourth, with the economy, behind healthcare, taxation, education and the environment.
Jake Lynch is the editor of the Issaquah Reporter. he can be contacted via email at email@example.com.
By Glen Hiemstra
Prediction: The next 15 years will see a transition in automobiles far faster than imagined today. The vehicle future includes:
This is the strategy behind the GM Volt. While current hybrid vehicles use an electric motor to supplement a gasoline engine, in a plug-in hybrid the concept is reversed. A small gasoline motor is used solely to run a generator to recharge batteries when needed, while the drive train is all-electric.
GM is working with two different companies on next generation batteries aiming for high power, fast charging and long life cycle performance that will tip the scale toward an electric future. The question for GM is whether they can survive long enough to implement this new technology. Other companies, Toyota included, intend to introduce similar plug-in hybrids in the next two years.
A decade ago it was assumed by many experts that next generation vehicles would mostly be all-electric vehicles powered by hydrogen-based fuel cells. It is an elegant idea – a car so clean it emits only water from the tail pipe. An even greater advantage is that a fuel-cell car is, potentially, a mobile private power station.
Since a car is typically driven an hour or two a day, the rest of time a fuel cell car could generate enough electricity to power most needs of a typical home.
The problem is that while hydrogen is abundant, it must be separated from other substances, ideally water, and then transported and stored. All of this is complex and expensive.
Because of these problems, most experts today have reversed course, and do not consider hydrogen fuel cells to be a significant part of the vehicle future. However, both Mercedes and Honda continue to place bets on a hydrogen future, and the state of California continues to work toward a hydrogen infrastructure.
This is the dominant play, I believe, and the one with the most critical implications for the lubricant industry. A plug-in electric is a simple solution. All you need is an electric motor (or four of them, one for each wheel), and a battery pack capable of the same high power, and fast charging time as needed in a plug-in hybrid. You also need the battery to be capable of longer life for longer distances.
The Tesla is a proof-of-concept car that can travel upwards of 200 miles on a charge. AltairNano, A123 Systems, and other “nano-battery” developers aim for life-cycles of 15,000 charges, such that a battery would outlive a car. Charge times are on the order of 10 minutes with high voltage systems that could be standard at filling stations.
The nation of Israel may be the first to go all-electric with a service station strategy of swappable batteries: drive in, replace your battery module, and drive out. Mercedes includes a plug-in electric in a reported plan to phase out gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2015.