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They call it 'public transit' but some riders get left behind

By: C.B. Hall
Crosscut
March 14, 2012


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One sees it in ways large and small: the confusion that is public transportation in our region whenever someone is trying to make more than a simple trip on a heavily traveled route or with a single transit provider. Go online to Google's trip planner to plan a trip from downtown Seattle to Smokey Point Boulevard and 174th, on Arlington's busy miracle mile, and Google will draw a blank. Snohomish County's Community Transit, although it runs five buses on Smokey Point, doesn’t share its data with Google, as Metro's planners, for example, do.

Try Google or any transit provider's planner for a let's-get-out-of-the-city jaunt to Skykomish or Stevens Pass and you'll strike out completely. A private company, Northwestern Trailways, in fact serves Skykomish and Stevens Pass twice daily, to and from Seattle — but it isn't on Google, and public-sector providers all too often act as if private intercity buses don't exist.

The gaps and omissions online furnish a metaphor for the inability of transportation providers to work together in other contexts, too. A 2006 report by the Puget Sound Regional Transportation Commission counted 128 “agencies” that “manage aspects of transportation” in Snohomish, King, Pierce, and Kitsap counties alone. (The term agency suggests that private providers are not included.)  Shoulder-bumping and the occasional sheer illogic are inevitable, given the number of cooks in the kitchen. Agencies often shun opportunities to work with providers outside their own modes and niches, however obvious those opportunities might be.

Meeting last September with representatives of the King County Ferry District (KCFD), Washington State Ferries (WSF) director David Moseley presented a plan to rebuild the state system's Seattle waterfront hub, Colman Dock, without the foot-ferry berth that the dock now includes. The county-operated ferry line relies on the dock at Colman for its passenger-only services to Vashon Island and West Seattle.

Although he took pains to stress WSF's cooperation in operational contexts, King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, speaking for KCFD, said the presentation “was not a dialogue.”

The Colman Dock plan looked much the same when Moseley put it on the table again at a January meeting of foot-ferry providers convened by Seattle's Cascadia Center for Regional Development. This time, however, three other current or prospective foot-ferry operators — Kitsap Transit and the ports of Port Townsend and Kingston — were on hand along with King County Ferry District (KCFD). None of the three had seen the plan beforehand. In an interview with Crosscut, Moseley alluded to staff-level discussions with Kingston, which, like KCFD already contracts for dock access, for its SoundRunner boats, but he did not provide details. “We don't have any contractual relationship with Kitsap Transit or Port Townsend,” both prospective users of the dock, he added.

Port of Kingston executive director Kori Henry, who was at Jan. 13 meeting, said there had “definitely not” been any approach from WSF prior to that date.

“That was the first I'd heard of it,” chimed in Larry Crockett, executive director of the Port of Port Townsend, which is working towards a 2013 launch of a foot-ferry to Seattle. “It was a little surprising, because we'd talked with Moseley directly, starting about a year before, and let him know we were in that [service launch] process.”

Moseley stressed that the plan, which some attendees said was presented as a fait accompli, is only preliminary, and that WSF would be happy to confer with foot-ferry providers if they take the initiative in proposing an alternative plan for the dock.

By statute, WSF cannot operate a foot-ferry, but it does have a clear mandate to work with those who do: State law provides that “the Washington state ferry system shall collaborate with new and potential passenger-only ferry service providers ... for terminal operations at its existing terminal facilities.” As if that provision didn't suffice, state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Burien), whose district is served by King County's boats, placed a proviso in the Legislature's recently approved transportation budget that seems to read Moseley the Riot Act. Referencing the existing law, the proviso instructs the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to ensure protection of passenger-only ferries and multimodal access is maintained at the Seattle terminal.  McDermott and others have meanwhile put together an informal political coalition on behalf of retaining the foot-ferry access.

Of course, even without pressure or legislative direction, nothing in the law prohibits transportation administrators from considering their colleagues in other agencies — as they often do in operational matters. Still, a keep-the-blinders-on mentality seems to prevail precisely when agencies should be taking the broadest view, in planning services and facilities. Without that foundation, providers ultimately must cut their own paths. The region gets a mishmash of providers who often view one another as foreign — if they're even aware of each other.

In its long advocacy of a “regional rail” service between Everett and Bellingham, the Cascadia Center has faced precisely this stumbling block. The service would require commuters going, say, from Mount Vernon to Seattle to transfer trains in Everett. That’s because the Everett-Seattle commuter rail service belongs to Sound Transit, and a service north of Everett would lie outside Sound Transit's jurisdiction, and thus entail either a separate provider operating a separate train or a problematic extension of Sound Transit's taxing district.

Or maybe something grander. For Cascadia, consolidating governance is crucial. “We proposed to [the Washington State Department of Transportation] in reference to its state passenger rail plan that it . . . include operating regional rail,” director Bruce Agnew told Crosscut. “The transit agencies are not in a position to form a consortium and operate it. [With state management] you come in under Amtrak [to run the trains] and access Amtrak's agreements with the host railroad.”

Agnew points to Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C., as examples of consolidated administration. Vancouver's TransLink, he says, is “endowed by the province to take care of all forms of transportation, including new bridges. In contrast, there's a balkanization in the Puget Sound area. 

“We busted our pick on regional governance for three years – and the Legislature and governor turned their backs on it," Agnew said. "And their argument was that they wanted Sound Transit to get past their 2008 vote on [the] Sound Transit II [expansion proposal]. That was four years ago.”

The governance issue didn’t make the agenda of the governor's Connecting Washington Task Force, either. Neither has governance or even the task force's proposal for a major new tax package to fund transportation infrastructure received much face attention from legislators in this year's session.

So is state transportation policy simply a submarine bumping along with its periscope down? In 2010, the Strategic Planning and Programming Division at the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) completed a legislatively mandated study on the feasibility of diesel multiple unit (DMU) service on a 13-mile corridor between Maple Valley and Auburn, in southern King County. (A DMU is a self-powered passenger rail car used by many commuter systems.) The scenario: the commuter takes a short trip on the DMU, gets off at the Auburn station, and transfers to a Sounder train to reach Seattle, for example. Despite the reluctance of riders to deal with a transfer, and the slowness of the overall trip to Seattle, the scenario does not foresee operational or administrative consolidations — a one-seat ride to Seattle train, or a pooling of crucial insurance arrangements — that would come into play if the Maple Valley route were added to the Sound Transit (ST) system. The Legislature, after all, only instructed the study's authors to consider transit within the13-mile corridor.

The authors nonetheless devoted a few thoughts on the advantages of coordination with existing providers. Unfortunately, the report concluded, “while DMU operation by existing agencies [King County Metro, ST, WSDOT and Amtrak] may be theoretically possible, there is little reason to expect those agencies to pursue the idea.” The report goes on to note a lack of interest in the service on the part of both Metro, which doesn't do trains, and ST, which, to incorporate the service area, would have to expand its taxing district — a very heavy lift.

The study's authors did their digging. They noted that, in addition to the aforementioned providers, “a thorough review of the RCW identifies at least a dozen other agencies that could provide transportation services. Of these, four types of public entities were identified that could plausibly manage the operation of DMU commuter rail service under current law.” However. after reviewing that alphabet soup of administrative models, the authors concluded that “even though it appears feasible to implement and operate DMU commuter rail service under any of these statutes none of them are a perfect fit for the circumstances in the [Maple Valley] corridor.”

The Maple Valley service thus brings to mind the pop-up that falls between the shortstop, the left fielder and the center fielder as each wonders if one of the others will catch it. None of the three gets an error — and baseball scoring, like Washington state's transportation policies, does not acknowledge the existence of a team error.

While even the most diligent public planners run into the firewalls that separate public transit's fiefdoms, private providers feel, if anything, even more frustration. They also point a bit more freely to attitudinal issues.

Clipper Vacations, whose tourism enterprises include passenger-only ferries sailing from Seattle to Friday Harbor and Victoria, has been able to manage only a very limited marketing arrangement with the state-sponsored Amtrak Cascades service, the result being that travel on neither carrier adds meaningfully to patronage on the other. Clipper CEO Darrell Bryan, who worked for almost 14 years in various managerial positions at Amtrak, says he has been trying since 2007 to purchase an allocation of train seats at fixed rates — hardly a novel procedure in the tourism industry. His efforts have met, in his words, “substantial resistance by Amtrak’s marketing management.”

“Attitude is the heart of it," Bryan said. "They get paid regardless of whether they get one person on that train or 200. They don't have any skin in the game.”

Amtrak's cold shoulder prompted Bryan to turn to Gov. Chris Gregoire. Writing her last Dec. 19, he noted the failure of his efforts with the national provider. “Our experience is consistent with what other groups have stated in working with Amtrak,” the letter stated.  “Washington State has made a major commitment to its intercity Cascade Corridor and I am concerned the future will be hampered by Amtrak performance.”

The letter sought the governor's support for contracting out the state-managed Cascades trains' marketing, reservations and ticketing functions to Clipper. Senate Transportation Committee chair Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island) sent the governor a letter of support, praising Bryan's intentions.

Asked what response he'd gotten from Gregoire or the State Rail and Marine Office, Bryan said, “Absolutely none.” He added that he was “tired of dealing with bureaucrats who don't want to find ways of increasing revenue and participation in promoting rail.”

Bryan's approach came in the context of a 2011 legislative mandate for a trial public-private partnership aimed at “increasing ridership, maximizing farebox recovery and stimulating private investment” in the train service. However much public-private partnerships may be enjoying political favor, this one appears to be stuck in the station. Rail and Marine Office spokeswoman Laura Kingman reported that the program “causes the State to lose revenue during peak season by selling [Clipper] seats at a discount that can be sold at full price.”

“It's a simple issue of numbers,” she said.

In an e-mail, Bryan countered that all the program partners — including Clipper and several tourism agencies — “understood the model except the rail folks. ... WSDOT-Rail and Amtrak have a very myopic view of the tourism industry. They can hide behind the simplistic argument that they may lose money on transactions while missing the point that it is more than off-set by volume.  ... This is not rocket science.”

Cascadia's Agnew directed attention toward the other Washington. “Here you have a third-party guy who comes in and wants to fill seats, and the state wants to increase ridership. Amtrak in D.C. has got to be sensitive to that. Turning your back on his pilot project is the wrong way to go.”

What the mind can conceive is one thing; what people can achieve together, at least in transportation, is quite another. Which returns us to those trip-planners. The techies who create the planners are poised to boldly go where no administrator has gone before. Not every technical glitch has been smoothed out, but the technology is racing far ahead of the politics and the flow of investment money.

“The tools that became available through Google should inspire those administrators to take action. Sometimes it takes a little while to do that,” says Port Townsend's Marcy Jaffe, a data-integration and innovation contractor who manages the collation of transit system data and their transfer to the technology giant.

“It may be that if you take transportation out of the fiefdoms, you would have an integrated  network. You need leadership that believes this is important, for the rider.”

The writer has done contract work for the Cascadia Center for Regional Development.

 

C.B. Hall is a freelance writer and has been following Pacific Northwest transportation issues since the 1990s. He can be reached through editor@crosscut.com.







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