To consolidate, disseminate, and gather information concerning the 710 expansion into our San Rafael neighborhood and into our surrounding neighborhoods. If you have an item that you would like posted on this blog, please e-mail the item to Peggy Drouet at pdrouet@earthlink.net

Friday, December 12, 2014

Metrolink chief Michael P. DePallo quits after two years


Krekorian and Garcetti Tout Metro’s New 405 Freeway Express Bus Service


By Joe Linton, December 12, 2014

 Cutting the ribbon on new Valley-Westside bus service. Left to right: Metro CEO Art Leahy, Mayor Eric Garcetti, Councilmember Paul Krekorian, and SFV Metro Service Council Chair Michael Cano. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

Cutting the ribbon on new Valley-Westside bus service. Left to right: Metro CEO Art Leahy, Mayor Eric Garcetti, Councilmember Paul Krekorian, and SFV Metro Service Council Chair Michael Cano.

Starting this Sunday, Metro is introducing its new Valley-Westside Express bus line that takes advantage of the recently-widened 405 Freeway’s new high-occupancy vehicle lanes. The new line runs from Pacoima to Westwood, with stops at the Van Nuys Metrolink Station and the Metro Orange Line’s Van Nuys and Sepulveda stations. The full map of the new service is after the jump below.
Metro Board members celebrated the new service at a press event this morning at the Metro Orange Line Sepulveda station.

Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Krekorian proclaimed that the new service will make it “easier, faster, and more convenient” to travel between Los Angeles communities. Krekorian also pledged that this is “just one step of many for the Valley” and that he is committed to making the Metro Orange Line run faster and adding to its capacity, and “increas[ing] rail in the San Fernando Valley.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recalled riding the RTD bus to West L.A. when he was growing up in the Valley. Garcetti touted the time savings on the new line, which is anticipated to save 20 minutes compared to current Metro bus service.

On Sunday December 14, a bundle of Metro service changes [PDF] take effect. Mostly, the agency is making minor changes, a euphemism for small cuts and consolidations, including reducing bus frequency on portions of a number of lines. Most prominent among the changes are a handful of San Fernando Valley Rapid/express bus services are being re-tooled, details here.

Route Map for new Valley-Westside Express. Image via Metro
Route Map for new Valley-Westside Express. Image via Metro

Speed limits increasing on U.S. highways – along with safety concerns


the explosive global growth of bus rapid transit (BRT)


By Jarrett Walker, December 2014

recent study from ITDP  surveys the growth of BRT around the world over the past decade.
BRT Infographic

Note that IDTP thinks of BRT as something that matches the performance of rail using buses.   ITDP's BRT standard excludes many of the projects that the US Federal Transit Administration calls BRT, which amount to premium buses in mixed traffic with minimal speed and reliability features.*

China has created the largest quantity of true BRT systems, but of course in per capita terms it's Latin America that is building true BRT most intensively.  Fast-developing middle-wealth countries like China, India, Mexico, and Brazil are the sweet spot for BRT because (a) car ownership is still moderate, (b) government power tends to be consolidated enough that decision making is easy, (c) there is simply not enough money to build massive rail transit systems, at least not quickly and at the necessary scale.

This news is also interesting in light of the forthcoming Rio de Janeiro conference on climate change, and the rumours that China may be ready to commit to reducing emissions, putting pressure on India to do the same.  Latin America, where many countries of similar wealth already have relatively strong climate change policies, is the perfect site for this conversation.

The other interesting stat is how rapidly the BRT revolution has moved.  Of all the true BRT in the world, 75%  was built in the last decade, mostly in middle-income countries, and the pace shows no signs of abating.

Fortunately, those middle income countries amount to a big share of the world, which could mean a real impact on global transportation impacts over time.

* (I tend to agree with ITDP's concern that the overly weak use of the term BRT is making it hard to talk about the original point of the BRT idea, which was to mimic what rail rapid transit does in terms of speed, frequency, and reliability.  This meaning is inherent in the "R" in BRT, which means "rapid".)

Muting the Freeway

How roadside noise barriers are designed to absorb sound and evade attention


By Nate Berg, November 30, 2014


 Arroyo Seco Parkway, 1949

 The freeway sound wall may be as overlooked as it is ubiquitous. Lining interstates and highways and freeways across the United States, these concrete and cinderblock structures are a blur in the peripheral vision of our automotive world.

This is partially by design: sound walls serve the utilitarian role of blocking and containing the tremendous noise generated by high speed transportation, and they’re built to do their job without distracting the people driving past in thousand-pound vehicles at more than 100 feet per second.

And yet, if you’ve ever looked at sound walls on the freeway, you’ve probably noticed that they are indeed designed, albeit somewhat minimally. A band of brown cinderblock cuts through the beige, a textured row of bricks juts out at the top, a zigzag waves along as you drive by. Sound walls are subtly decorated, and there are designers — mostly landscape architects — whose job it is to design them. There are now thousands of linear miles of freeway sound walls lining roadways in the U.S., and their simple patterns are an indelible part of the American landscape. Despite this abundance, sound walls are little more than an ignorable background architecture, something to look away from or even despise. Given their massive footprint on our built environment, that seems inordinately dismissive.

(See website for a video.)
Sound walls tell the history of freeway development, the growth of American auto-oriented living and the spread of suburbs in the United States — going back to before the first official sound wall was built nearly 50 years ago, back to the early days of freeways themselves.

There’s no real consensus on where the first American freeway was built, mostly because of semantics. What we think of as a freeway today (or in 1980 or in 1950) is vastly different from the first high-speed roadways built in the early 20th century. People often look at the Arroyo Seco Parkway running between downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena, opened in 1940, as the first of this type of road, though that’s not really accurate. “There were some earlier ones back east,” says Daniel Faigin, who runs California Highways, a hobbyist website devoted to the history of the state’s numbered highways. Scenic parkways in the New York area date back to the ‘20s and the Robert Moses era, but the Arroyo Seco, now known as Interstate 110, bears more resemblance to the freeways and highways we drive today. “It’s grade-separated,” Faigin says, “but lots of twists and turns, and most people nowadays would say it’s not safe, not up to current designs standards. If you’ve driven it, you know.”

This stretch of the 110 is much curvier than the many neighboring freeways in Los Angeles, and drivers simply can’t drive as fast as they can on the bigger, straighter freeways that are far more common. But when the Arroyo Seco was first built, speed wasn’t as much of a priority as it is today.
The Hollywood Freeway, as seen from the Hollywood Bowl in 1950.
“Traffic in the ‘30s and ‘40s was different. People drove differently and people expected different things,” says Leslie Kendall, chief curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. “People driving along enjoyed unfolding vistas in front of them, there were wide sweeping turns and it was a lot slower.” It was more akin to driving through a pastoral landscape than battling jerks at rush hour. But as freeway building kicked into full gear after World War Two, freeway driving was less about a scenic ride than getting someplace fast. “Speeds started going up, cars started becoming lower, tires started to become wider, and that’s where a lot of the noise comes from,” Kendall says. Though engines and exhaust pipes do make sound, material and technological advances have gradually made them less noisy, and it’s the tires of cars that are responsible for most of the noise on the freeway.
“Every time a tire rotates, the patch that adheres to the pavement, whatever surface that might be, sticks to it, then it has to peel off. Every time. It sticks and peels, it sticks and peels. And that peeling is the noise you hear.”
Kendall says that tires back in the early days of cars, in the 1920s and ‘30s, were just two or three inches wide. The cars didn’t go very fast, so traction wasn’t a major concern. By the ‘40s, cars were able to move faster and the tires were becoming bigger, four or five inches wide. By the ‘50s they were half a foot or more. Tires today can be more than a foot wide. The growth of tire size, the expansion of freeways, the rise of cars as a necessity of modern life, the mobility, the speed, the sheer amount of cars on the roads — all this has resulted in freeways that are incredibly loud.
Diagram from “Can Noise Radiation From Highways Be Reduced By Design?”, California Highway Transportation Agency, Dept. of Public Works, Highways Div., Materials and Research Dept., January 1968.
In the mid-1940s, after just a few years of existence, the modern freeway was already causing noise problems, particularly in Los Angeles and especially within the city’s thriving entertainment industry. The Cahuenga Boulevard Parkway, a two-mile stretch of freeway that opened within days of the first sections of the Arroyo Seco, ran directly adjacent to the Hollywood Bowl, and it soon became clear that the noise of the freeway would become a distraction for performers and audience members alike. Working with the California Department of Public Works to study road noise near the Hollywood Bowl, acoustical physicist and UCLA professor Dr. Vern O. Knudsen would recommend in a 1945 study that “a wall or parapet, built to a height of at least 10 feet above the promenade walk, be constructed along the southeast corner of the Bowl, thus enclosing the entire seating area with a substantial wall which will serve as a sound screen against street and Freeway traffic noises.” Such a wall, Knudsen suggested, would reduce noise inside the Bowl by up to 6 decibels, equivalent to the noise drop of turning off the TV in your living room. Ten years later, in 1955, after the Cahuenga Pass had been linked up with other stretches of freeway to create the US 101 Freeway, another study of noise at the Hollywood Bowl reiterated Knudsen’s call for a wall.
Diagram of seating at the Hollywood Bowl, with the locations of noise measurement points used in the 1954 study “Noise Levels at the Hollywood Bowl and Pilgrimage Play Theatre, Immediately Before and After Opening New Hollywood Freeway Section,” Dept. of Public Works, Highways Div., Materials and Research Dept.
By this time, as freeways were expanding in and around L.A., movie producers were also struggling with the noise alongside their studio lots. The Association of Motion Picture Producers teamed up with the Department of Public Works to study freeway noise, and sound engineers from Universal International Studios brought their General Radio sound meters and Magnecord tape recorders to the sides of these new freeways to take measurements. These early studies continued throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s and helped to set the standards for acceptable levels of noise near freeways.

And though the movie studios had the incentive and the equipment to investigate the issue, the noise was having a much wider impact on the thousands of people living next to the growing freeway network. Most of the early freeways were built right through existing neighborhoods, putting car lanes where houses once stood. “In greater Los Angeles, the closer you get to the city, the freeways cut through the little neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods were kind of stuck,” Kendall says. “You had these houses that are 10 feet from a major freeway, with cars going by at 60, 70 miles an hour all day long.” Clearly, there was a need for something in between the noise and the neighborhoods.
Diagram from “Can Noise Radiation From Highways Be Reduced By Design?”, California Highway Transportation Agency, Dept. of Public Works, Highways Div., Materials and Research Dept., January 1968.
“The concept of a sound wall is very, very simple,” says Aaron B├ętit, an acoustical engineer at Acentech, a consulting firm specializing in noise control and mitigation. “Basically, the idea is to stop the energy going from the source to the receiver. The source is obviously the car, and the receiver is usually a house. By putting something with mass in front of the two, some amount of energy is stopped from traveling that way and it travels in a different direction, refocused somewhere else.”

A simple wall became the mass of choice. In 1968, the California Department of Public Works built what is believed to be the first sound wall along a freeway. It’s still standing today, on a stretch of Interstate 680 in the city of Milpitas, in between the eight-lane highway and homes on Murray Street and Greathouse Drive. (Another wall, built before the Milpitas wall but not as part of the state’s official freeway sound wall program, stands next to Mark Keppel High School, which directly abuts Interstate 10 in Alhambra.) The passage of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969 helped to legitimize concerns related to development and urban growth, including freeway noise. That led to the creation of the Noise Control Act of 1972, which aims to “promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their health or welfare.” As a result, freeway sound walls began to spread. And they work pretty well.

This is what it sounds like next to a cinderblock soundwall on the side of a freeway, recorded on US 101 in Los Angeles, near the Hollywood Bowl and the early freeway noise studies:

 (See website for a video.)

And this is what it sounds like on the other side of the sound wall:

 (See website for a video.)
Since the first sound walls were built in California in the 1960s, they’ve risen all over the country, 12, 16, sometimes 20 feet tall. According to the Federal Highway Administration, as of 2010, there were 2,748 linear miles of noise barriers built with federal money along highways in the U.S. — though that number is certainly even larger now. Sound walls stand in every part of the country, except for Alabama, Rhode Island, South Dakota and the District of Columbia.

Though sound walls are widespread, they’re just one noise mitigation tool for freeway builders. Most commonly, freeways will be set below the grade of the city and their noise energy will be absorbed and reflected by their trapezoidal trenches. Other large retaining walls are also used to carve out this space for freeways, and these double as noise reducers. There are also berms, pre-cast concrete barriers and wooden fence-like structures. The Noise Control Act requires state governments to build sound barriers in between highways and housing only when new freeways are built or existing freeways are expanded or realigned. For those residential areas not covered by the law, housing developers often build their own sound walls to reduce the impact of nearby noise.
But the official sound walls, the ones you’re most likely to see as you drive down the interstate or your local freeway, are built by the government.
“Most of our palette is usually concrete,” says Patty Watanabe. She’s a landscape architect in Caltrans’ District 7 office, which covers Los Angeles and Ventura counties, and she and her colleagues are responsible for controlling the visual impact of all freeway projects. That means roadside plantings, rest stops, medians and a lot of sound walls. She and her colleagues are well versed in the usage of concrete aggregate cinderblocks: smooth “precision” blocks (203 mm by 203mm by 406mm); rougher “split face” blocks (203 mm by 203mm by 406mm); fluted “split face” blocks (254mm by 203mm by 406mm); short “precision cap” blocks (203mm by 50mm by 406mm). Beige, brown, tan, light tan, red, grey, sand.
Watanabe pulls out construction documents for a typical sound wall project. It’s a simple design of light tan, with two stripes of textured light tan blocks running lengthwise near the top and bottom, with a skinny light tan row of “precision cap” blocks at the top that is interrupted every so often with a big, bold capital T shape of light tan fluted split face blocks in the upper half of the wall. “We’ve taken a lot of advantage, I think, of using color and texture,” she says. Simple pieces making simple geometries, like the low-definition pixel drawings of an early video game. You can almost see it sidescrolling by your passenger window.

“You’re going to see a lot of the same things, and there’s a reason for that, because those are the things that are in stock in the maintenance yards. And if you have to get something different then it’s more costly. We’re trying to be good stewards of the public funds,” Watanabe says.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, the average cost of building a sound wall is $30.78 per square foot; between 2008 and 2010 roughly $554 million worth of sound walls were built.
About 75 percent of all noise barriers are built of either cinderblock or pre-cast concrete. “We’re under constraints and we’re trying to be inventive and creative within our constraints,” Watanabe says.

In an August 1997 article for The Atlantic Monthly titled “Noisy Highways,” Philip Langdon wrote, “The aesthetic progress of highway departments has been agonizingly slow.” But he also went on to note that, by seeking input from residents living near planned sound wall projects and enlisting artists to advise on their designs, some sound walls have become well loved.
“For example, Marilyn Zwak, of Cochise, Arizona, and two assistants applied 150 tons of adobe to the Thomas Road overpass on Phoenix’s Squaw Peak Parkway, shaping the twenty-four-foot-high support columns into evocative profiles inspired by Hohokam Indian zoological forms. On the retaining walls of the overpass Zwak installed thirty-four relief panels based on human, animal, and abstract images found on Hohokam artifacts. Then she invited neighborhood residents to imprint into the adobe their own designs or objects, ranging from tools to clothing remnants to the key to one of the houses that was demolished to make way for the freeway. Completed in 1990, the overpass has since been voted Phoenix’s most popular work of public art.”
That may be an uncommon example, but there are other instances of elaborate designs being built into freeway walls or intricate sculptures being added to roadsides and overpasses. Concrete stamping techniques and improvements in textural materials have made it easier to add a dash of artistry to freeway infrastructure. But, for the most part, freeway sound walls are simple, minimal and cost-efficient.

One of the major constraints guiding their design is safety, and Watanabe says the designers at Caltrans have to be careful not to make sound walls too interesting, to keep drivers from becoming distracted. To a certain degree, the sound walls are designed not to be noticed. But the visual elements can actually help keep drivers alert, in a subtle way. Watanabe says that long canyons of sound wall can have an almost hypnotic effect on drivers. She and other designers try to break up the monotony. “If they become too much of a corridor then drivers get dozey and drowsy and sleepy,” she says. The designers use vertical elements, like concrete columns or textured block patterns, to add variety to long stretches of horizontal designs.

And that opens the question of how readable these designs can be when drivers are rushing past at 70 or 80 miles an hour. Watanabe says Caltrans designers have to play around with the placement of vertical elements, and make sure the cinderblock patterns are elongated so that they don’t just come across as a blur. “You can’t place things too close together because they’ll just read as one. You won’t get the effect you want.”

But she understands that people — or at least most people — aren’t driving around on freeways to look at cinderblock art. She says it doesn’t bother her that sound walls are little noticed or even ignored. “We don’t expect anybody to stop and look,” Watanabe says. “And in most cases they don’t.” That sentiment highlights the fact that these structures, designed to be seen and not seen, have become an almost natural part of the American landscape, blending into the background of the built environment, fading into fuzz like the din of a city or the perpetual clamor of trains in the distance.

To give readers an opportunity to better understand the constraints under which freeway sound walls are designed, re:form has commissioned artist Gary Kachadourian to create a cut-and-fold paper sculpture of a sound wall, inspired by Southern California freeways, that can be printed out on letter-size paper and constructed into customizable models.

Kachadourian specializes in scale drawings and paper models of mundane urban and infrastructural settings, and his sound wall drawings are a kit of parts enabling readers to build and design their own sound walls. The palette of materials is, appropriately, limited.
1/350 scale model of 10 wall sections and 4 highway lanes, by Gary Kachadourian.
1/64 scale model of 3 wall sections, a column, a door, a drain and two highway lanes, by Gary Kachadourian.

Caltrans Broadens Its Mission As Californians Change The Way They Travel


By Katie Orr, December 9, 2014

 A cyclist rides in a new bike lane.

A cyclist rides in a new bike lane.

Californians have a reputation for loving their cars. But an increasing number of us are choosing other modes of transportation, and Caltrans is trying to keep up.

The state transportation agency's most recent household survey found Californians are walking and bicycling twice as much as they did 10 years ago.

The department’s Mark Dinger said the days of simply creating wider freeways are over.

“That was, you know, our grandfather’s Caltrans, where we thought about pouring more concrete all the time," Dinger said. "Well, pouring more concrete is not the answer. We need a sustainable transportation system that’s going to be good for our environment and good for our health, too.”

Dinger said Caltrans is awarding millions of dollars to cities and counties for projects that encourage biking and walking. And he said the agency has become more flexible with street designs to allow for better bike lanes and crosswalks.

Dinger said Caltrans has also gone through internal reforms to more accurately reflect its broader mission.

Connecting Pasadena Project information

From Sylvia Plummer, December 12, 2014

In west Pasadena there is an empty freeway ditch that needlessly divides the City, cutting off the Old Pasadena Business District on the east from the Ambassador Auditorium, Maranatha Campus, and the rest of West Pasadena. The CPP, a citizen driven initiative, aims to develop a draft Master Plan for this 35 acre strip of land flanking the 710 stub from Union south to California. CPP’s goal is to engage the community to determine how best to revitalize and beautify this dead space.
For more information:   http://connectingpasadena.squarespace.com/

SR-710 North project awareness campaign


By Steve Hymon, November 21, 2014

As you peruse the internet and local print publications in the coming weeks, you may notice an ad similar to the one posted above, as seen on latimes.com. It’s part of Metro’s ongoing effort to let the public know that the draft environmental impact report/statement (DEIR/S) for the SR-710 North project is scheduled for public release in February. The ads encourage the public to “Learn the facts; Get Involved; Be part of the solution.”

The study is a big deal. The DEIR/S is funded by Measure R — the half-cent sales tax approved by nearly 68 percent of Los Angeles County voters in 2008 — and has been in the works since early 2011. The project aims to improve traffic in the western San Gabriel Valley and the surrounding area, with a particular focus on the communities near the four-mile gap in the 710 freeway between El Sereno/Alhambra and Pasadena and the regional impact of the gap on other freeways.

The five alternatives being studied are: a freeway tunnel (with and without tolls, with express bus service and with local traffic and intersection improvements); bus rapid transit between East Los Angeles and Pasadena; light rail between East Los Angeles and Pasadena; road, intersection and traffic signal improvements (officially known as Transportation Systems Management or TSM), and; the legally-required no-build option.

There have already been almost 100 community meetings and more than 200 stakeholder briefings – with more to come. While there’s no getting around the fact that the tunnel alternative remains controversial in some quarters, Metro has tried to raise awareness of the five alternatives equally and encourages public participation during the upcoming 90-day comment period following the release of the DEIR/S. The Metro Board of Directors will ultimately select a preferred alternative and forward their recommendation to Caltrans — but that only will come after hearing what the public has to say about the environmental studies.

Here’s the project web page on metro.net. The “facts vs. fiction” section is part of the ongoing effort to explain some of the basics about the study and project for those who have not been following the work. The public can receive updates on the upcoming environmental document release by signing up at: http://www.metro.net/projects/sr-710-conversations/commentquestion-form/

McGinn-era tunnel study proving true: Bertha project was 'high risk,' geology a challenge


By Steve Wilhelm, December 12, 2014

 Former Mayor Mike McGinn worried about tunnel risks before the project started, and warned of Seattle's liability if things went wrong.

Maybe former Mayor Mike McGinn was prescient about the risks of Seattle's underground tunnel after all.

A 2010 study he commissioned said the tunnel was at a level of "high" risk, both in terms of the technical complexity of the project, and the soils through which it must drill.

"Taken collectively, a prudent reviewer would must conclude that the 'success' of this bored tunnel (on time and at budget) is questionable," wrote Boston-based engineer Thom Neff, who prepared the study.
At the time the study was dismissed as a reflection of the anti-tunnel bias of the McGinn administration, and McGinn's protests were overridden by the city council, and more importantly by the Washington state Department of Transportation, which was driving the project. Voters approved the tunnel project in 2011.

Now, though, problems have mounted around the mired Seattle tunnel project. With Bertha stuck underground for a year and the ground settling around it, it's worth looking back at the Neff study.
Bertha's original problem, which stopped the giant tunnel machine a year ago, had to do with something very mechanical that Neff never mentioned: Bad seals around the main bearing that allowed grit inside and damaged the bearing.

But the mounting complexity of issues since then, with the ground sinking around Bertha before engineers have even managed to raise the cutter head for repair, suggest that Neff was onto something.

As readers may remember, McGinn consistently opposed the tunnel on the grounds that the risk was too high, and that Seattle might have to pay for any cost overruns.

As McGinn said in PSBJ interview at the time, he also contended that too much money was being spent to benefit people with cars who could afford tolls, which was draining resources from others of greater need.

Neither McGinn nor Neff were available for comments at press time.

The 32-page Neff study was essentially a review of Seattle Department of Transportation documents and data on the proposed tunnel. Much of it is technical in nature.

But it's at the very bottom of the study, in Appendix C, where Neff rated the risk of the project, that things get interesting.

Technically, he said the machine's diameter, as the largest in the world, warranted a "high" level of risk, a five out of five.

Also rating a high level of risk – a five – was the underground material. Neff wrote what he called the "geologic setting" was "Highly complex, sticky clays, flowing sands, abrasive materials, large boulders."

And third, the high water pressure at the tunnel depths, which seems to be proving a problem now, rated "above average" risk at a four.

Guest Editorial: We Need to Stop Trying to Rescue This Tunnel Project and Consider Our Options


By Cary Moon, December 12, 2014

 Stop and think. Instead of the Bertha rescue effort, we could have had, say, the Surface Transit option.
 STOP AND THINK. Instead of focusing on the Bertha rescue effort, we should consider other options.

Oh man, what a holy mess we are in with this godforsaken tunnel project. This week’s anxiety about damage to Pioneer Square is only the latest entry in a mind-boggling list of troubles.

The problems actually started way back when the tunnel boring machine (TBM) was still in the factory. The first time Hitachi Zosen installed the cutter head, the structure of the machine was not stiff enough to accept the weight and went out of round. Then, as soon as they turned on the motors for the factory test, metal-to-metal grinding damaged the housing. This itself—structural failure before the machine was even under load—is an engineering mistake on a grand scale, almost unbelievable.

But, as we all know, it got worse. After Hitachi Zosen reinforced the machine and shipped it to Seattle, Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP) started digging and made good headway. Then, about 1,000 feet in, the key components—cutter head seals and main bearing—failed. This happened one year ago, and STP engineers still do not know the cause of failure.

Currently, the rescue operation to remove, repair, and reassemble the TBM is under way. This is a high-wire act in itself. If they succeed in digging the remaining 40 feet of the removal pit without causing Pioneer Square buildings to sink, if they can drive the TBM forward into the pit, if they succeed in removing the front end of the machine and lifting it out of the hole, if they can figure out why it failed, if they can install new seals and a new main bearing and add steel to—once again—strengthen the machine, and if they can do it all out there en plein air on the side of the road, then they can reassemble the machine and restart.

That is a LOT of ifs and unknowns.

If I were running the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), which is in charge of overseeing this project, or STP, which is in charge of carrying it out, I’d be in a panic. (But, seeing as how I was for the surface transit option back in 2008, that’s the last thing I’d want to be doing right now.) If they can’t remove and repair the boring machine, this project is dead—money all spent, the project stalled out at 10 percent complete.

My guess is they’re currently trying to manage the technical challenge of fixing what may be a fatal flaw, fighting with their contractors at every turn, all in the context of a legal mess of magnificent proportions. Tutor Perini, part of the STP partnership, has ruthless attorneys and a legendary reputation for crushing government clients in these ugly liability battles, sometimes walking away with hundreds of millions beyond the base contract fee—at the public’s expense.

Which is all complicated enough, but keep in mind one more thing: There is no bond to back up a failed project here. There is only a $500 million project performance bond on the tunnel project, instead of a $2.4 billion bond that would cover the whole projected cost. WSDOT changed state law temporarily to allow this lower insurance coverage—instead of requiring a bond covering the full project cost like normal—in order to save money up front. Aieeee! It’s like our house is on fire and we have just enough insurance to cover rebuilding the basement.

So where does that leave us, as citizens of Seattle?

We need our leaders to step back and look at the full picture, at all the moving parts of this slow-motion train wreck. We need to reassess costs and risks and liability, and consider our options. When project managers get into panic mode, the tendency is to just go full speed ahead, do whatever it takes to git ’er done, and sort out who pays what later. That isn’t the right approach for this situation, given its peculiarities: the immediate and unexpected threat to the Pioneer Square Historic District, the lack of an adequate construction bond, the wolverine-like ruthlessness of Tutor Perini’s lawyers, and the basic doubts about the TBM’s miserable performance so far.

The Seattle City Council, Mayor Ed Murray, and Seattle Department of Transportation, please get on the same page, and take the reins in four areas:

Protect Pioneer Square historic buildings from damage due to the settlement caused by STP’s dewatering operation. The aggressive high-speed dewatering idea was sprung on everyone quickly, and the effects on historic buildings—many unreinforced masonry—of removing 600 gallons per minute from the aquifer were not fully analyzed. Already some foundations and sidewalks, as well as First Avenue, seem to be cracking due to settlement. The city and state preservation experts need to figure out the allowable threshold, set up more rigorous monitoring, and enforce the limits.

Know the limit for viaduct settlement, and when to shut it down to protect public safety. For 10 years, we all understood the upper limit for sinking was six inches; more than that meant the viaduct must be shut down. WSDOT just blew by that threshold, and now says it wasn’t really a big deal. Okay, so if six inches wasn’t the real limit, what is? There is some allowable threshold written into contracts with STP, so make WSDOT tell us what it is. And keep an eye on it.

Secure the $290 million committed by WSDOT for rebuilding our local waterfront street, Alaskan Way. Remember, when Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien proposed that promised money be set aside in a lockbox in 2009, their colleagues said, “Naah, we trust WSDOT.” With STP lawyers chasing every dollar they can, it’s time to get WSDOT to hand over that funding before it disappears.

Have a plan to provide local mobility if the viaduct needs to be shut down on short notice, for good. The tunnel project is looking mighty iffy, and it would be pragmatic if the city had a plan B for local access if the project fails.

And about that plan B… It won’t be too hard to put this together, because the work was done by SDOT back in 2008 to answer exactly this question. Back then, Option B of the Urban Mobility Plan included a four-lane urban street on the waterfront (exactly the size and scale as in the current Waterfront Seattle plan), a lot of new transit service in the corridor, some improvements to I-5, fixes to other streets north and south of downtown for freight mobility, and computerized signal timing to increase flow. Traffic on the viaduct has fallen by about 30 percent since 2008, so accommodations for this lower amount of traffic can easily be met with the right subset of those investments.

The city has already designed the new Alaskan Way surface street, so that part is done and shovel ready. If the city and King County could negotiate funding from the state, Metro could add a big boost in transit service in the corridor—maybe even achieving the promise of a true Bus Rapid Transit system.

In other words: We need to stop and consider options. Because it’s very likely the cost of new transit service, along with fixes to other streets and upgrading the Battery Street Tunnel, will be more affordable than continuing to funnel untold millions into STP’s money pit.

As WSDOT flails around, and STP tries to press on at all costs, it’s time for the City of Seattle to step up and lead us out of this mess.

If they "Close the 710 Gap"

Whoops! How Planners and Engineers Badly Overestimate Car Traffic


By Angie Schmitt, December 12, 2014

How much car traffic will a new building generate? Engineers and planners are constantly trying to divine the answer to this question in the belief that it will tell them the “right” number of parking spaces to build, or how to adjust streets to accommodate more cars.

This is the bible for planning infrastructure around new developments. Is it wildly wrong? Image: Access Magazine
This is the bible for planning infrastructure around new developments. Is it wildly wrong? 

The standard reference to guide these decisions is the Trip Generation Manual published by the Institute for Transportation Engineers. But the manual has come under fire for overestimating the traffic produced by mixed-use developments. A team of transportation engineers aligned with the Congress for the New Urbanism has been working on a fix for that.

Meanwhile, a new study by University of California professor Adam Millard-Ball takes the critique of ITE a lot further. In a new article for Access Magazine, Millard-Ball argues persuasively that ITE is overestimating traffic not just on mixed-use projects, but on all developments — and not by a little.
This has been the case for a long time, he says, and it’s only gotten worse as driving levels have declined across the country in recent years. Millard-Ball calculates that the ITE method of predicting trips based on development would have forecast an increase of 90 million trips during an eight-year periods in the 2000s. The actual increase? Just 2 million trips, as reported in the National Household Travel Survey.

Robert Steuteville at Network blog Better Cities & Towns explains the significance of Millard-Ball’s research:
For those who are keeping track, that’s a discrepancy of 4,500 percent. As US travel habits change, the ITE data keeps pointing to ever-increasing traffic, as developers pay impact fees and transportation planners anticipate more congestion.

Use of the ITE manual has a profound affect on new development–opposition often centers around traffic generation. But the bigger impact is on overbuilt roads and the construction of too much parking. Not only is this wasteful, but also it diminishes sense of place and walkability, which in turn affect quality of life and economic development. The design of the road itself can result in more cars on the road. Safety is affected–streets that are too large encourage speeding, which boosts the severity of collisions and ultimately injuries and deaths.

Millard-Ball explains that ITE estimates are likely weighted toward suburban, automobile-oriented developments and big, controversial projects on key sites. ITE numbers also assume that projects will be successful, whereas in the real world many are not. This data, in other words, is based on measuring sites that have more traffic than typical sites.

Moreover, many developments don’t generate new traffic–they just shuffle it around. A new courthouse will not increase the number of people in the county judicial system, Millard-Ball explains. Schools generate surprisingly little new traffic compared to what ITE suggests. A new supermarket may not increase actual shopping for food, but shift customers from one location to another instead.
Elsewhere on the Network today: Streets.mn shares a graph showing long-term trends in American transit ridership. And Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space reports a depressing statistic: the average transit rider spends 40 minutes a day waiting for a connection.