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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Seattle’s unbelievable transportation megaproject fustercluck


By David Roberts, December 16, 2014

Last week, I mentioned in passing that Seattle is in the midst of a full-spectrum transportation fustercluck. It has since come to my attention that some Grist readers are unfamiliar with the fustercluck in question, even though it recently made The New York Times and NPR.

This cries out for remedy. A tragicomic infrastructure own goal like this deserves wider exposure. Perhaps some lessons can be learned. Or you can just point and laugh.

“Ha ha, Seattle,” you can say. “What a fustercluck.”

We are currently at a crucial decision point in the story. There’s still time for Seattle leaders to change course, though it looks unlikely. But first, some history.

The epic tale begins with the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a two-tiered, elevated section of State Highway 99 that runs right through downtown along the city’s waterfront, providing a spectacular view of the skyline and Puget Sound.
Seattle and viaduct
The Alaskan Way Viaduct slices through Seattle.
There are two problems with the viaduct.

One, it was a stupid idea in the first place, one of the many stupid decisions made during the highway-building frenzy of the ’50s. It went wildly over budget, didn’t solve any of the traffic problems it was supposed to solve, and worst of all, cut Seattle off from its gorgeous waterfront.

To get from the downtown core to the adjacent waterfront, pedestrians have to walk through a gloomy, shaded area beneath the highway, which, because it’s gloomy and shaded, has been given over to parking lots, a waste of precious urban land. This has left the waterfront isolated, a tourist destination rather than an integrated part of city life.

Second, the highway is on the verge of falling down. In 2001, the Nisqually earthquake damaged it, leading to $14.5 million in emergency repairs. Since then, the viaduct has been “settling,” i.e., sinking and cracking. In 2007, a group of researchers from the University of Washington concluded that, for safety reasons, the viaduct needed to be shut down within four years. “It’s coming down in 2012. I’m taking it down,” then-Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) said. “That’s the timeline. I’m not going to fudge on it.”

Spoiler alert: It’s still up.
The State Route 99 Alaskan Way Viaduct is a double-deck highway along Seattle's downtown waterfront.

What to do about the viaduct? There were three basic options:
  • Replace it with a new elevated highway.
  • Replace it — at least the part of it that goes through the downtown core — with a giant tunnel that would be covered over to allow downtown to connect with the waterfront.
Seattle's tunnel plan.
Seattle’s tunnel plan.
  • Don’t replace it with a highway at all. In its place, create a walkable waterfront with a modest four-lane street. To accommodate traffic overflow, add transit upgrades and street improvements in the surrounding area.
The surface/transit option for Seattle's waterfront.
A cross-section of the surface/transit option.
People’s Waterfront Coalition
The third, “surface/transit” option was the cheapest and most in line with smart green urbanism. Naturally, Seattle VSPs ignored it entirely.

Reporter Dominic Holden — who has covered this story better than anyone, for Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, but has now been lost to Buzzfeedsummarized the situation thusly in 2010:
Seattle didn’t want to replace the viaduct with a tunnel. Voters rejected both a tunnel and a new elevated highway by wide margins in March 2007. A stakeholders group—people representing business and waterfront interests—convened to discuss what they wanted. Representatives from the city, county, and state transportation departments ruled out a tunnel. They elected for a smaller viaduct or a surface/transit option. A deep-bore tunnel was out of the question, in part because the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) said it was too expensive. At a closing meeting of the stakeholders group, WSDOT’s David Dye made a speech, saying, “It is out of reach in the current state of affairs to make it happen.” He added, “It would be disingenuous of me to sit here representing the state to say, ‘Geez, you know, let’s go build a deep-bore tunnel.'”

The state is now on the verge of building a deep-bore tunnel.

Turns out most people simply can’t fathom getting rid of an urban highway. No matter how many examples to the contrary accumulate, people instinctively think that tearing down a highway means that all the same traffic will just spill onto side streets.

So, an unholy alliance — downtown business groups, large companies like Boeing (whose interest in Seattle transportation begins and ends with getting commuters through it quickly), the antediluvian WSDOT, craven Seattle City Council members, craven state legislators like Ed Murray (who sponsored the tunnel bill and is now mayor), and head cheerleader Gregoire — bullied the tunnel back onto the agenda, and Seattle voters, sick to f’ing death of arguing about it, finally voted in 2011 to allow it to go forward.

A small bit of tunnel.
Most charming is the financial setup. Originally the state and city were each financially responsible for their part of the project — the state for the tunnel, the city for surrounding infrastructure, like the new seawall, that would be needed to make the tunnel possible. Tunnel cost overruns would be covered by the state. Back to The Stranger:
But the state screwed Seattle at the last minute. One month after signing the agreement, the legislature passed the law capping spending and requiring Seattle to pay for all cost overruns—including all cost overruns on the state’s part of what is a state highway project.
This is an unprecedented funding arrangement: city taxpayers on the hook for a state highway project.

The 2009 tunnel law passed by the City Council specifically says Seattle taxpayers will only pay the $937 million that they have already offered up. But state law says Seattle taxpayers are on the hook for overruns. Surely this is the kind of high-stakes confusion that state and city leaders would clear up before the digging began, in case the unexpected happened?

Spoiler alert: They didn’t.

This grim prelude led many, many people to warn, repeatedly and at great volume, that Seattle was about to get fucked. Here’s how Holden started his story on it:
You’re about to get fucked, Seattle.
Read Holden’s story for details, or my long 2010 interview with local activist Cary Moon, which comprehensively covers the reasons this thing is a bad idea.

In short: There is no plan to resolve the dispute over cost overruns, which are ubiquitous on projects like this; at $4.2 billion, it’s the most expensive transportation project in state history. The tunnel will have no exits — no ingress or egress — throughout the entire downtown core (which makes the support of downtown businesses all the more mystifying). It won’t allow transit, only cars. It will be tolled, highly enough, by the state’s own estimates, to drive nearly half its traffic onto the aforementioned side streets. It will be a precarious engineering feat, the widest deep-bore tunnel in history, digging right between a) Puget Sound and b) the oldest part of Seattle, with vulnerable buildings and God-knows-what buried infrastructure. Also: Pollution. Climate change. It’s the 21st f’ing century. On and on. People said all this and more, in real time, to no avail.

One of the people fighting hardest against the tunnel? Visionary mayor Mike McGinn, who spent his term in office warning that exactly what is happening now was going to happen. For his efforts, Seattle voted him out of office. We prefer to hang on to our illusions.

Holden’s 2010 list of things that might go wrong with the project began with this:
1. The tunnel-boring machine gets stuck
Spoiler alert: The machine got stuck.
2. Our plan to deal with a broken machine is inadequate
Spoiler alert: Our plan to deal with the machine is a slow-motion fiasco.
3. The ground caves in
Spoiler alert: … Oh, you get it.

SR 99 Tunnel Project leaders pose in front of Bertha, the world’s largest-diameter tunneling machine, in December 2012.
Holy Bertha!
OK, so, the project gets underway in 2011, scheduled to be done in late 2015.

In July 2013, they bring in Bertha, the largest tunnel-boring machine in the world, built specifically for the project by the Hitachi Zosen Corporation.

It’s an engineering marvel! There’s a small-scale replica on public view in the historic Pioneer Square neighborhood, the very neighborhood Bertha was to dig beneath.

The massive machine cranks up and jams its enormous snout into the earth, tearing fiercely through rock, soil, and seawater, leaving all the world in awestruck wonder. For a minute, anyway. Then, a thousand feet in — one-tenth of the way through its journey — it grinds to a halt.

No one knows why. For months. It eventually emerges that the machine itself is broken and no one is quite sure how to fix it, or how long it will take. What broke it? Turns out Bertha ran into a large steel pipe that was left there by a WSDOT employee in 2002. Yes, WSDOT killed its own machine. It’s almost poetic. [Correction, 12/16/14: The steel pipe casing was left in the ground not by a WSDOT employee, but by a WSDOT-hired contractor. Also, Seattle Tunnel Partners, which owns Bertha, says the machine broke down due to overheating; neither STP nor anyone is sure exactly why, or whether the pipe casing is to blame.]
Funny story: Bertha has no rev
erse gear. There’s no way to back it out. The repairs have to be done in situ, which means WSDOT Seattle Tunnel Partners has to dig a 120-foot hole to reach the machine. (It’s pure luck Bertha didn’t get stuck beneath a building, if “luck” is the right word here.)

So that’s what construction crews have been doing for the last few weeks, digging down to Bertha, pumping out salty groundwater as they proceed. It’s going really well!

A 10-foot-long replica of the SR 99 tunnel boring machine
Here’s the Bertha replica.
Ha ha, no, of course it isn’t. Instead, as water is pumped out, the surrounding land has started settling, unevenly, cracking streets and threatening nearby buildings and the viaduct itself.
The viaduct has sunk about an inch in the last few weeks. Is it still safe? WSDOT says so, and I for one can’t think of a single reason to doubt what they say. Ahem.

Now, 84 feet down, crews have stopped digging. No one knows exactly how dangerous the settling is or how it will be solved. Meanwhile, they have to keep pumping saltwater out lest the big hole fill up.

Contractors are saying that tunneling will resume next April, pushing completion back into late 2016. But the fact is, that’s more hope and prayer than prediction. The aforementioned Cary Moon, in a new editorial, explains what has to go right for that to happen:
Currently, the rescue operation to remove, repair, and reassemble the TBM [tunnel-boring machine] 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.
After that, another if: if Bertha can make it the rest of the way without stalling again, maybe under a building where there’s no way to reach her.

If all that comes together, the biggest if of all: if, after all the delays and repairs and extra work, the project can still be brought in on budget.

Spoiler alert: You’re more likely to see salmon sprout wings and fly.

Like most megaprojects, the tunnel was sold to voters and city leaders through a rose-tinted fantasy that is already in shambles. But no city or state leader seems willing to reverse course.

That is typical. One of the main reasons transportation megaprojects end up being such nightmares is that leaders are terrified of abandoning sunk costs. (Has the term “sunk costs” ever been more apropos?) They will keep throwing public money down holes even as disasters unfold. Anything is better than admitting a catastrophic mistake.

As Holden wrote in a story this July (after Bertha stopped, but before the sinking started), nobody but nobody is taking responsibility for this omni-mess — not City Council, not Murray, not Gregoire, not the contractors, nobody.

Meanwhile, a nasty legal battle with contractors is on the horizon and Seattle taxpayers are already on the hook for several blocks of new water mains around Pioneer Square. It may only be a taste of what’s to come.

People are beginning to speak the unspeakable:
Washington State transportation secretary Lynn Peterson recently acknowledged in a radio interview that there is now a “small possibility” the tunnel will never be finished. Prominent Seattle attorney John Ahlers, who specializes in construction disputes, agrees. “It is entirely likely that, at the end of the day, forces will align and the once touted project to improve Seattle’s waterfront never becomes a reality,” he wrote in a blog post last month.
You could fit a lot of money in there.
You put your money in it.
Mayor Murray has not given up, though. Instead, his message is that the tunnel will go forward but, sorry, Seattle might have to cut back on those other waterfront improvements. This now sets lucky Seattleites up for the worst case scenario: a new tunnel with none of the urban upgrades that were supposed to attend it — a status quo that, many billions of dollars later, is little better for city residents than what preceded it.

But Seattle still has a chance to get out of this. Moon and other activists are now openly calling for the tunnel to be abandoned. There’s still time to let it go and revert to the surface/transit option, which has already been scoped out in detail and would be orders of magnitude cheaper.

Seattle does not need an urban highway, any more than San Francisco, Milwaukee, Portland, Vancouver, Madrid, or Seoul needed theirs. They tore theirs down and the traffic jams did not materialize. Instead their urban cores became more walkable and pleasant, so they attracted more people, more businesses, and more tax revenue. Cities work best when designed for the people who live in them, not the people trying to get through them as quickly as possible.

Still, given the uniform incompetence, willful delusion, and bad faith that have characterized this fustercluck so far, such a positive outcome seems unlikely. Rather, city leaders seem determined to keep digging.

Spoiler alert: We haven’t hit bottom yet.

France to ban Uber's ride-hailing service in 2015


December 15, 2014

Uber's low-cost ride-hailing service will be banned in France next year, the government said Monday as hundreds of taxi drivers blocked roads around Paris to protest what they say are its unfair business practices.

A new law tightening regulations for chauffeured rides will in effect ban the UberPop service as of Jan. 1, said Pierre-Henry Brandet, spokesman for France's Interior Ministry.
"Currently, people who use UberPop are not protected if there is an accident. So not only is it illegal to offer this service but for the consumer there is a real danger," Brandet told the BFM television network.

Several hundred taxis blocked the roads heading from the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, then inched toward the French capital in their latest protest of the ride-sharing company.

France is the latest of several places where Uber has faced challenges to its service, which matches people seeking rides with drivers through a cellphone app. Traditional taxis say Uber has an unfair advantage because its drivers don't face the same requirements, insurance and taxes.

On Friday, a French court stopped short of banning the company but ordered Uber to make changes, including omitting "all mention suggesting it is legal" for its drivers to act as taxis — that is, driving around and waiting for clients.

Uber did not immediately comment.

Los Angeles Has a Plan to Combine the Best of Uber and Taxis


By Adrian Glick Kudler, December 16, 2014




Ride service Uber looks more and more monstrous every day, with every new news cycle delivering fresh allegations of crisis surge pricing, overcharging, shoddy driver background checks, unfair compensation practices, or proudly unethical executives, but the service is definitely convenient, especially in Los Angeles, where summoning a cab is an ordeal. (After UberX lunched in LA, taxi rides fell by about twenty percent.) So the Los Angeles Taxicab Commission's president is working on a plan that would turn existing, regulated cabs into Ubers, but without all the douchiness: the draft plan, from President Eric Spiegelman (producer of Old Jews Telling Jokes, Curbed contributor), would require all LA taxis to use e-hailing apps like Flywheel or Curb, and would also require that those apps be certified by the Taxicab Commission, reports the New Yorker.

Taxi regulation is weird in LA because drivers are all independent contractors who work for licensed operators; if the operators regulate drivers too heavily, the IRS could reclassify them as regular employees (Uber is also working to avoid such a scary, worker-friendly fate), so they rely on the government to provide strict guidelines. (Which is why they objected to Spiegelman's attempt to change the "black socks for drivers" requirement.) Through certification, the Taxi Commission could "specify things like pricing maximums and limits on hours worked in a single shift, and can perhaps even set up a rating and complaint system for passengers."

Via app certification, the Commission would also be able to ensure that taxis maintain their biggest advantages over private ride services, in "areas like vehicle safety, driver safety, guaranteed service to all neighborhoods, and service to the disabled." Uber drivers don't have to pick up a rider in Baldwin Hills or Pacoima if they don't want to, but taxis aren't allowed to pick and choose their customers; Uber recently launched wheelchair-accessible service in LA, but unlike accessible taxi service, it's way more expensive; cabs also have to be broadly insured, while Ubers are only required to carry personal insurance; taxis aren't allowed to dramatically increase pricing during storms or hostage crises.

Spiegelman will present his proposal to the Commission on December 18 and is hoping for a vote in January to require the apps and to create a working group to come up with certification requirements. He says that the e-hailing apps, which take a cut of fares and are sure to get lots of new customers out of the plan, are on board.

A Widely Used Planning Manual Tends to Recommend Building Far More Roads Than Necessary

A lesson in "phantom" trips.


By Eric Jaffe, December 16, 2014


Some of the most trusted planning tools used to manage vehicular traffic have shown themselves to be pretty harmful to city life in certain ways. A metric known as Level of Service, which aims to minimize automobile delay at an intersection, can act as a huge obstacle to public transportation projects. A design book calling for 12-foot lanes, an engineering staple across the country, can speed up car flows and endanger public safety as a result.

It might be time to add one more established tool to the questionable list: the Trip Generation Manual from the Institute for Transportation Engineers, a common guide that tells traffic planners how many car trips will be generated by a new commercial or residential development project.

That's the argument made by environmental scholar Adam Millard-Ball of UC-Santa Cruz, who challenges the merits of the Trip Generation Manual in an upcoming research paper (nicely summarized in ACCESS magazine). Millard-Ball reports that the ITE manual may overestimate the number of trips generated from a new development by as much as 55 percent—"phantom trips," he calls them. The result is that cities may build way more roads than necessary, perpetuating sprawl and leaving less street space for non-drivers in the process.

"[The ITE manual] is used pretty much everywhere for small or medium-sized development," Millard-Ball tells CityLab. "In some places it's a starting point rather than a final word, though I think that's still pretty rare."

 A quick primer for non-engineers out there. The Trip Generation Manual tells planners how much weekday traffic they can expect to emerge from various types of local development. So a 24-hour convenience store, for instance, will put about 738 new daily trips on the road for each 1,000 square feet of retail space. The project types get very specific: from "automated car wash" to "baby superstore" to "coffee/donut shop with drive-through window and no indoor seating."

Ideally, the manual helps traffic planners prepare a road network for all the new trips—adding a lane here, perhaps, or a turn signal there. But while the tool is supposed to be reserved for suburban, car-centric areas with negligible transit shares, it's often misappropriated as a blanket guide. Some cities do adjust trip estimates for higher-density areas or use other measures they consider more precise, says Millard-Ball, but the ITE manual is nevertheless a standard tool for smaller-scale development.

"Maybe it's a five-to-ten unit apartment building, and the cost of having some consultants come in to run a more sophisticated model is completely disproportionate," he says. "That's when you just look up the trip generation rates in the ITE manual."

For his analysis, Millard-Ball compared the number of development-related trips estimated by the ITE manual to the number of trips people report taking in actual household travel surveys. As the table below shows, the ITE manual predicts people will take many more trips than they truly do, pretty much across the board. Take an average school. Whereas the ITE manual predicts it will generate about 41 million trips a year, the 2009 household travel survey suggests the real trip number is closer to 13.7 million—overestimating traffic by 198 percent.

Altogether the manual overshot new trips related to residential development by 56 percent and to commercial development by 54 percent, according to Millard-Ball's calculations, with total trips overestimated by 55 percent.

Via ACCESS magazine
That trend holds true in pretty much every metro area across the country. The figure below shows residential trips per housing unit made each weekday in 2009 in more than 50 U.S. metros. In nearly every city, the number of trips reported by household surveys (the thick bars on the left) came in significantly lower than the number estimated by the ITE manual (the thin bars on the right). For the entire country, the average household reported about five trips per weekday, against the ITE prediction of roughly eight.

Journal of Transport and Land Use

Here's why those "phantom trips" matter: the more car trips that local planners believe will emerge from a new development, the more road space they dedicate to cars. This unnecessary space creates higher taxpayer maintenance costs and reduces room on the road network for pedestrians or alternative transport modes. Phantom trips can also encourage sprawl. If the manual estimates more new trips than the local road network can accommodate, for instance, developers might prefer to move the project to a more remote area.

"Certainly the inclination of cities is to err on the side of estimating higher trips," says Millard-Ball. "It's conservative in this context to expect more car traffic, even if another way of interpreting conservatism is that you shouldn't build roadway infrastructure or widen lanes unless you're absolutely sure they'll be needed."

The fundamental reason the manual is such a poor predictor of trips, he says, is its flawed core premise that new development automatically generates new trips. Take a new courthouse, for instance. Building the court doesn't inherently increase the number of crimes or legal procedures that occur in an area. It's far more likely that people who'd already be traveling to some court will simply go to this new one.

In other words, the courthouse relocates old trips far more than it generates new trips. Distinguishing truly new trips from merely relocated ones is the first step toward more accurate estimates and fewer unnecessary roads.

But to frustrated drivers across the country, Millard-Ball's insights raise an obvious question: If metro areas are building more roads than necessary based on "phantom" trips, then how come there's still so much non-phantom traffic on city streets? Part of the answer, he says, is that new road space alone encourages new traffic—a concept known as "induced demand." So even though new development itself may not generate as much traffic as the ITE manual suggests, the new roads created to accommodate that development will entice some people to drive.

"It's not that we'd have induced traffic all the way to the level of the original prediction, but there would likely be some modest increase in traffic because we're catering to phantom trips," he says. "To some extent, it's a case of if we build it, they will partially come."

Los Angeles Reports 3,134,527 Car Accidents During Rainy Day (Satire)


December 15, 2014


The Los Angeles Department of Traffic reported over 3 million car accidents during one day of moderate rainfall yesterday when the area was hit with one inch of recorded precipitation.

With 16 million people in the  area, that accounts for 1 in 4 people, 25% the population, crashing in just a single day. This breaks the 1997 record when 22% of the people were in an accident after even lighter rain fall.

“The car crash rate was higher than our election voter turnout rate,” said traffic department head Darren Brown. “It is unbelievable. We were lucky to avoid any fatalities. Most were bumper to bumper incidents.”

A dozen car accidents occurred every second during the rainy day. The normal car accident occurs every six seconds, according to the department. Brown called it “Grand Theft Auto V multi-player street racing out there.”

“We just want to remind the people of Los Angeles that when it rains, the roads get wet. When the roads get wet, they become a little slippery.”
When It Rains, Insurance Pays
Insurance companies expect to pay out over $60 billion in damage claims because of the single day of rain. This will cause everyone's premiums to go up for the foreseeable future. Experts say a 50% increase is likely and a snow day would be Armageddon.

“That’s how insurance works,” said University of Southern California economics professor Adam Jazz. “It’s about pooling risk. Those who don’t file a claim help pay for the damage for those who do make a damage claim.”

California has the highest car insurance rates in the country. Millions of people fail to get coverage, which is mandated by state law, and the burden is placed on people who pay for the insurance.
Non-insured drivers also drive 10 times more when it rains, according to a fictitious study by Harvard University: “The insurance companies will have to raise everyone's premium. We expect many small insurance companies to go out of business or get bought by the bigger corporations.”

Insurance companies in Southern California have decided to no longer cover accidents caused by rain.

“We already deny flood damage for homes, so why not cars?” Allstate Insurance spokesman Ethan Carl said. “We don’t want to pay for three million car accidents every time it rains in L.A. God forbid it ever snows.”