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, February 3, 2015

Despite Shutdown Threats, Seattle Keeps Gritting Its Way Through Tunnel Project


By Josh Cohen, February 2, 2015




Last week, two Republican legislators in Washington State filed a bill attempting to kill the multibillion-dollar highway tunnel currently being dug under downtown Seattle. With the megaproject stalled for all of 2014 due to a now infamous failure of machinery, State Sens. Michael Baumgartner and Doug Eriksen didn’t mince words.

 Their bill opens, “The legislature finds that the state route number 99 Alaskan Way viaduct replacement project has failed. The legislature also finds that the project as it is currently designed cannot be justified financially and is not in the best interest of the public.”

Though the bill is couched in good old-fashioned fiscal conservatism and will-of-the-peoplism — “the project has created great anxiety and frustration, and has lost the political support of the people of Seattle, its council, as well as the people of the state and its legislature” — it was likely just a swipe at tunnel devotees such as Governor Jay Inslee and other Democrats up for reelection next year.

Either way, it was short-lived. After the bill was introduced, legislators, Inslee and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray circled the wagons and voiced their continued support for the project. The following day, Senate Transportation Committee Chair Curtis King, a Republican, killed the bill by declaring it would not get a committee hearing.

“While I understand my colleagues’ concerns regarding the Seattle tunnel project, a bill to shut down a project of this size is not realistic,” King said in a press statement.

But though the bill might’ve just been political posturing, Ericksen and Baumgartner are correct. The project IS failing and spectacularly so. That failure — and all the attending disillusionment and political machination — underscores ongoing debates that surround decision-making about infrastructure projects in cities from coast to coast.

For those unfamiliar with Bertha (the broken boring machine) and the Rte. 99 project, here’s the shortest recap I can muster.

Washington State Rte. 99 is a highway running north-south through all of Seattle. In the heart of the city, 99 runs along an elevated, double-decker viaduct that separates the downtown core from the Puget Sound waterfront. A 2001 earthquake severely damaged that viaduct, and even $14.5 million in repairs left the structure, according to researchers, “critically weakened.”

In 2008, then-Gov. Christine Gregoire announced that she would tear down the viaduct by 2012. “I’m not going to fudge on [that timeline]. And if we don’t have some alternative by then, boy are we going to have a mess on our hands because it’s coming down.”

Washington’s DOT put forth three replacement options: rebuild the viaduct, replace it with a massive tunnel under downtown, or replace it with a four-lane surface street with transit improvements. With the blessing of the Seattle residents (sort of), WSDOT and construction contractors Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP) started moving full steam ahead to deliver the incredibly ambitious second option.

Those on the hook for the project tab, estimated at $3.1 billion, include the state and the Port of Seattle. (The City of Seattle paid out nearly $1 billion for waterfront redevelopment, central seawall replacement and utilities relocation; those efforts were separated from the tunnel project.) The state legislature put the city on the hook for any cost overruns.

Most megaprojects have cost overruns and hit unforeseen snags, but this viaduct replacement tunnel was always particularly risky. The tunneling machine — named Bertha after former Seattle Mayor Bertha Knight Landes — is the largest in the world at 57 feet in diameter. The ground’s mix of soft in-fill dirt, rocks and more is troublesome. Coupled with the fact that Bertha wasn’t built with the capability to go in reverse, there’s a good chance of getting stuck.

The machine ran as planned from July 2013 to December 2013, making it about 1,000 feet of its nearly two-mile journey. Then it broke — the reasons for the failure still aren’t clear — and it hasn’t budged in over a year.

WSDOT and STP spent as much time arguing over who’s to blame as they have fixing the problem.

On Friday, news arrived that STP has finished digging a 120-foot-deep pit to remove and repair Bertha’s blade. The rescue attempt may have created a crack along a downtown street, and the viaduct (which is still up more than two years after the former governor said it would come down) sank nearly half an inch in some spots. (A WSDOT representative says the cracks predate the project and, “We are still trying to determine what affect project dewatering might have had on S. King Street.”)

So, here we are today with a stuck boring machine, nine-tenths of the tunnel yet to be dug, $2 billion spent, and a political leadership that, at least publicly, still fully supports the project. Whether or not Baumgartner and Eriksen were sincere, there’s certainly merit to the arguments raised by their bill.

Cary Moon is a Seattle citizen activist and former director of the anti-tunnel People’s Waterfront Coalition. Like reporter Dominic Holden, she correctly predicted some of the tunnel’s risks back in 2010. She thinks the recent spate of problems is pushing elected officials to a tipping point.

“We’re two-thirds of the way towards people admitting it’s not working, but we’re not there yet,” Moon says. “Definitive news that viaduct’s not safe to continue using or definitive news from WSDOT or STP that they can’t fix the machine might do it. Right now there’s a vacuum of leadership in terms of what to do about the big problems.”

But she is confident that should more problems arise, politicians will need a plan B.

STP should know within a few months whether or not they can fix the problem and resume tunneling. If they can, they’ve got about 8,000 feet left to tunnel, mostly underneath historic buildings in one of Seattle’s oldest neighborhoods where rescue will be even more difficult should it get stuck again. In other words, some of the riskiest tunneling is yet to come in this already risky project. In the meantime, there is still no public plan B from city or state leaders.

“The public’s very frustrated. They see a disaster happening in slow motion. And they see leadership not stepping up to admit there’s a big problem and identify a way out of it,” says Moon.

Perhaps other cities will look to Bertha and the Big Dig and other megaprojects that run over budget and reconsider plans to be the biggest and boldest. Or they’ll just convince themselves that they’ll be lucky, and move forward full steam ahead.

Obama's budget includes windfall for L.A. transportation


Obama’s New Transportation Budget: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


By Angie Schmitt, February 2, 2015

With federal transportation funding on track to run dry by May 31, Washington lawmakers are gearing up again to reset national transportation policy… or, if that doesn’t work out, to limp along indefinitely under the status quo.

Unlike the U.S., China is opening high-capacity transit lines left and right.

Today President Obama unveiled his opening bid in this process. The $478-billion, six-year plan from the White House includes many of the proposals the administration unveiled last year. Congress didn’t advance those ideas then, and with the GOP now controlling both houses, chances remain slim for reforming highway-centric federal transportation policy.

But the White House budget document remains the best summary of the Obama team’s transportation policy agenda. The ideas are intriguing even if they’re politically improbable.
Here’s a look at the highlights [PDF].

The Good

Boosts Transit Funding: Obama proposes a large increase in transit funding, budgeting $23 billion in 2016 and a total of $123 billion to transit over six years. That would represent a 75 percent increase over current levels. The would go toward both expansions and the maintenance and improvement of light rail, BRT, subway, and commuter rail networks.

Promotes State DOT Reform: The Fixing and Accelerating Surface Transportation program would “create incentives” for state DOTs and other transportation agencies to reform how they approach road safety and congestion management. Funded at $1 billion annually, the program would fund initiatives like “distracted driving (safety) requirements or modifying transportation plans to include mass transit, bike, and pedestrian options,” the White House says.

Expands TIGER: The Obama budget would increase funding for the popular TIGER program to $1.25 billion annually, up from about $500 million in 2015. TIGER lets cities and local transportation agencies directly access federal funding for their projects through a competitive grant process, allowing for more rapid progress on multi-modal projects like the Indianapolis Cultural Trail.

Prioritizes Bridge Repair: About $5 billion per year would be set aside for fixing bridges and roads that are “deficient” and “pose a safety risk.” (Caveat: Depending on how this program is structured, it could be used by states and localities as a backdoor way to pay for highway expansions that are tenuously justified on safety grounds.)

The Bad

More Money for Highway-Obsessed State DOTs: The incentives to reform how state DOTs spend money will need to be very strong, because the budget increases the amount of money distributed to them by about 25 percent, to $50 billion annually. While this is a smaller percentage increase than the boost for transit Obama is proposing, it will mean more money for agencies that still haven’t figured out how to kick the highway expansion habit.

No Real Funding Fix: Obama wants to pay for his plan with a one-time tax assessment on corporate foreign earnings – meaning this is not a renewable funding source, but another stop gap funded by a mechanism that has nothing to do with the transportation system. The proposal is only slightly less gimmicky than the overseas “tax holiday” proposed by Senators Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and Barbara Boxer (D-California), .

So even at this early stage, all parties have punted on the idea of raising the gas tax, even though with gas prices at remarkable lows, drivers would hardly notice.

The Ugly

Prospects for Passage: While the policy ideas look promising, as long as Congress remains reflexively opposed to the White House, the transportation budget is mostly an exercise in laying out a future agenda, not crafting new legislation.

The Beginning of the Driverless Taxi Wars?

There are signs Uber and Google could become "ferocious competitors" instead of allies.


By Eric Jaffe, February 3, 2015

 Image Google

 The latest prototype of Google's driverless car.

When driverless car leader Google made a $258 billion investment in ride-hail leader Uber back in 2013, the marriage seemed headed toward a world of on-demand autonomous taxis that render car-ownership in cities totally optional. But the honeymoon appears to be ending, according to Brad Stone of Bloomberg Business. Citing unnamed sources, Stone reports "signs that the companies are more likely to be ferocious competitors than allies":
Google is preparing to offer its own ride-hailing service, most likely in conjunction with its long-in-development driverless car project. [Google's David] Drummond has informed Uber's board of this possibility, according to a person close to the Uber board, and Uber executives have seen screenshots of what appears to be a Google ride-sharing app that is currently being used by Google employees.
Google would not confirm (nor explicitly deny) the report—instead issuing what Stone calls a "cryptic tweet" about how Uber and Lyft "work quite well." Uber, meanwhile, recently announced a partnership with Carnegie Mellon to develop its own driverless car technology in Pittsburgh.
Even if both sides are just hedging their bets, as Slate's Will Oremus suspects, there are clearly some robotic wheels in motion.

A split would no doubt hurt Uber more than Google. Catching up on driverless technology and digital navigation on par with Google Maps is a far bigger hurdle than building an app and amassing a network of freelance drivers. For its part, the don't-be-evil Google might be wary of going all in with a company that seems to attract scandal at every turn.

To get a sense of just what's at stake here, we turned to recent research from Daniel Fagnant and Kara Kockelman, who have been modeling possible networks of shared driverless taxis in Austin, Texas. Their latest simulations, presented at a transportation conference in January, suggest an optimal fleet size of 2,118 taxis to serve Austin. Assuming a purchase price of $70,000 per vehicle, fares of $1 per mile, and no competition, an operator could see a 19 percent return on investment.
It's obviously way too early to know if these price points might actually be accurate (let alone the accuracy of the Bloomberg report). But it's safe to say there's a lot of money on the line for whichever company masters the driverless taxi scheme. Certainly enough to fight over.

A 30-Year Plan for U.S. Transportation Summed Up by One Word: Choice

With Beyond Traffic, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx pivots U.S. policy away from cars and toward multimodal options.


By Eric Jaffe, February 3, 2015

 Image REUTERS/Larry Downing

 US DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx. 

On Monday the U.S. Secretary of Transportation rode in a driverless car to a tech campus serviced by private bus transit in an area of the country targeted for high-speed rail. He fielded questions about pedestrian safety and delivery drones and gave answers about bicycle lanes and vertical development. To the extent that he discussed cars and roads, it was to remind the audience just how much worse traffic is going to get in the years to come.

Such was the clever scene for Anthony Foxx to unveil a public draft of Beyond Traffic—the DOT's much-hyped, 30-year vision of U.S. transportation policy that promises to nudge the country off its 20th-century, highway-first course.

DOT has been compiling the 300-plus-page report over many months and public meetings. It's not an "action plan," so to speak; officials are calling it the start to a national dialogue about America's transportation needs through 2045, with a refined final report due out by year's end. But however you prefer to characterize Beyond Traffic, its thesis is clear: the United States needs to pivot away from car reliance toward the type of mobility system better suited to cities.
"We're changing how we move in this country," said Foxx to an audience at Google's main campus in Mountain View. "As populations starts to concentrate around metropolitan areas around the country, and you start to see more congestion—increasing travel times—it has implications on how much money we need to invest but also what it is we're paying for with that money. Multimodal systems are going to be needed in the future."

"Multimodal meaning bus, car, train?" clarified Google's Eric Schmidt, who led the discussion.
"Choices," said Foxx. "Giving people choices."

The need for such choices is supported in Beyond Traffic by a litany of demographic and behavioral trends that regular CityLab readers will find thoroughly familiar. Annual miles driven have peaked. Younger Americans want alternatives to cars. Aging Boomers will need better transit options. City centers and walkable suburbs are growing at the expense of remote regions. Online shopping is stuffing delivery trucks. Technology is making it far easier to hail a taxi or wait for a train.

The potential solutions outlined in the report won't come as a surprise either; most were addressed during CityLab's recent Future of Transportation series (Foxx even mentioned for one of those pieces, on how the smartphone became a key transportation innovation). It includes ideas like maintain existing infrastructure and design smarter facilities. Promote car alternatives and road pricing.

Reduce barriers to autonomous car and connected vehicle technology. Encourage development in transit corridors. Consider new public funding mechanisms and invite the private sector to the table.

What's fresh about the plan—or, if you insist, the dialogue—is the force behind it. On the same day Foxx spoke in Northern California, President Obama presented a massive six-year, $478 billion infrastructure program that reinforces the multimodal tenets established in Beyond Traffic. Highway spending would rise 21 percent in the proposal and remain the lion's share of federal funding, but transit spending would rise 65 percent, TIGER funding (for discretionary grants) 135 percent, and passenger railroad money 221 percent, according to an initial Eno Transportation Weekly analysis.

There would be a separate line item for bus-rapid transit. And nearly $1 billion for driverless car research and development. And dedicated funding for what the administration calls "high-performance rail," no doubt because "high-speed rail" has become such a loaded term. The Highway Trust Fund would be renamed the Transportation Trust.


Livability goals have been introduced by this administration before—notably back in 2009 by then-Secretary Ray LaHood—with little to show for them. The prospects for such an ambitious program backed by a progressive policy vision seem dim in the current political context, especially the plans to pay for it with a one-time "repatriation" tax. Not to mention, finding a national consensus for a program with so many local parts will be daunting.

But the ultimate success or failure of Beyond Traffic is a bit besides the point as Foxx describes it. At Google, he suggested that federal transportation policy has been spinning its wheels since the Interstate Highway System was "completed" back in 1992—chasing budget holes rather than true progress. The highway system we have in place is "one of the finest systems, if not the finest system, the world's ever known," he said. But now it's time to focus on the next one.

"Folks who are stuck in traffic right now someplace in the country certainly want to see a solution happen," said Foxx. "I think when we talk about the trends in this report, it gives people a window. We can actually choose the future."