Rail Thin: Ideas For Beefing Up Seattle’s Transit Network

For a city its size, Seattle has a puny rail network. It has just one light rail line, The Link, running from the airport to downtown.  That line will be extended into University District via Capitol Hill in 2016. Tacoma is connected via the Sounder (heavy rail), as is Everett, but with a sparse schedule with a huge hole in the middle of the day and at night. The East Link (funded thanks to ST2) will connect Mercer Island, Bellevue and Redmond in 2023, if all goes according to plan. Note that downtown bound East Siders have deigned to stop in Judkins Park, as Sound Transit has planned a station there. New lines will require further funding via the passage of 15 billion dollar ST3 package or the development of some other funding mechanism.

I’ve been grappling with Seattle’s struggles with maintaining and building more affordable housing and the issue is a bit of a quagmire with plenty of theories but no clear path forward. At least with transportation there is a clear path forward: passing ST3 to get 15 billion dollars in funding and then hopefully selecting the most useful projects.

Orange Line: Ballard to U District

I sketched out a dream map for a Seattle rail transit map and I favor as the highest priority project the Ballard Spur, my Orange Line, which connects Ballard to UW campus and Seattle Children’s Hospital in Laurelhurst. The reason I favor it is not just because I live near the line, but also because east-west movements in Seattle are particularly gridlocked and building a subway along this corridor would provide an enormous time savings and have a huge catchment. Thus it would have a huge ridership despite being a relatively short line. Plus it would feed into the new Link station in the University District where you could make a connection on the speedy ride to Capitol Hill and Downtown. That’s how Seattle’s fledgling system starts turning in a real system with big utility.

Seattle Rail Map of the Future

My hypothetical Seattle rail map includes the already under construction main truck line (the blue line) plus some proposed additions discussed as part of ST3. The fuchsia line is my own creation and roughly follows Highway 99.

My hypothetical Seattle rail map includes the already built Link Light Rail with the extension planned or under construction as the blue line plus some proposed additions discussed as part of ST3. The fuchsia line is my own creation and roughly follows Highway 99.

Some of the projects are extremely unlikely to be included in ST3 because they haven’t even been formally studied by Sound Transit. On that list is the Green Line and the Fuchsia Line in my color scheme.

Green Line: Metro 8 Subway

The Green Line would follow the #8 Metro bus route and greatly upgrade it by moving it underground to provide grade separation. The multi-billion-dollar expense of building a subway line make it unlikely to survive ST3 sausage making process in which the suburbs will demand their cut. However, this subway would be elegant solution to mobility woes in this highly congested corridor; it seems inexorable that this line is built, given the rapid job and residential growth in the South Lake Union (as I’ve documented in an earlier post).

Fuchsia Line: Riding along 99

The Fuchsia Line would connect South Lake, Queen Anne, Lower Fremont, Phinney, Green Lake and Bitter Lake and provide a faster and more direct route to the airport via Georgetown. A line like this in the Highway 99 corridor hasn’t been widely discussed but I think makes a lot of sense. Highway 99 is already a focus point of what little density North Seattle offers so it seems a logical place to expand. However, Sound Transit appears to be very focused “on building out the spine” (the present day Link light rail) far out into the suburbs and likely won’t be interested in adding a competing “spine” in Seattle as part of ST3. Crossing the ship canal will also be an expensive proposition best accomplished with a tunnel. The line would likely remain a subway south of the canal and perhaps transition to at grade or elevated in North Seattle.

Purple Line: West Seattle to Ballard… to Lake City and Beyond?

The Purple Line may end up getting built for political expediency since it appeases West Seattle, but it’s not without its own problems, such as high cost due to crossing the Duwamish. I sketched the Seattle Subway suggested routing which would continue to Ballard via Interbay and a ship canal tunnel and continue to Crown Hill before cutting east to Greenwood, Northgate, Pinehurst and Lake City. More than likely if ST3 ends going in this direction, they wouldn’t be able to afford the whole line so they’d perhaps terminate it in Ballard.

Why Rail?

Plenty of budget hawks and rail skeptics say why not instead rely on buses to improve transit? Buses don’t require such a large capital investment and their routes are flexible. The big problem with buses in Seattle is that they  routinely stuck in traffic at one of the cities many choke points. The lack of grade separation greatly reduces the speed and efficiency of the transit system. Grade separated rail immediately provides a dependable speedy alternative to the clogged city streets and highways. The best solution in the downtown core and really until after you cross the ship canal is building subways.

Long term, I think these three north-south lines and two east-west light rail lines would provide the city of Seattle with solid and dependable transit access which is going to be crucial to meeting the mobility needs of a highly congested city where Metro buses wallow in heavy traffic during rush hours.

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Twins: The Mr. Magoo of Baseball

The Minnesota Twins are in the middle of their 146th game with 16 more games remaining and the playoffs tantalizingly within reach. Unfortunately, Kevin Jepsen just blew a save last night and the offense couldn’t come through in three extra innings. That loss pushed us to 1.5 games behind the Houston Astros for the last Wild Card spot.

Tonight we started the game like we meant to fight right back into the race with a 5-run first. Then Tommy Milone imploded in the second inning and Achter came into to serve up a gland salami to reigning MVP Mike Trout and we found ourselves down 6-5. We have 8 frames to take the lead back, but nonetheless we feel like a team that stumbled into a Wild Race like a baseball playing Mr. Magoo, a team with no business winning and not ready for the big stage.

New York City is oft a setting of epic Twins pratfalls, much akin to Mr. Magoo.

New York City is oft a setting of epic Twins pratfalls, much akin to Mr. Magoo.

Part of that stems from a feeling, for which there is ample statistical support, that we have been over-performing and winning more by luck than skill. Both our hitting and pitching rank in the bottom half of the league in most categories yet we find ourselves 75-70 and still very much alive in the playoff hunt.

Burying Our Super Shortstop

One way we squandered our assets was not playing Eduardo Escobar more earlier in the season and not playing him higher in the order now that we are starting him at short. Escobar’s numbers are very similar to those of Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe, but, while they get prime spots in the order, Escobar routinely bats ninth. Escobar has a .331 OBP and a .844 OPS since the All-star break.

Twins infielder Eduardo Escobar hits a single against Tampa Bay pitcher Brandon Gomes in the fifth inning at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Friday, March 6, 2015. The Ray beat the Twins, 2-1. (Pioneer Press: John Autey)

Twins infielder Eduardo Escobar hits a single against Tampa Bay pitcher Brandon Gomes in the fifth inning at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Friday, March 6, 2015. The Ray beat the Twins, 2-1. (Pioneer Press: John Autey)

Dozing Dozier

Brian Dozier has been scuffling which is helps explains why the offense has had some hiccups. Dozier went from being the undisputed team MVP of midsummer to a late season slump. At the All-Star Break, Brian Dozier had an impressive .841 OPS. After the break, he’s managed just .645. And that slump has intensified of late. In September, Dozier has hit just .164 with a .512 OPS. That is Torii Hunter territory.

Torii On A Tear

Meanwhile Torii Hunter is hitting like Brian Dozier in September (after spending two pathetic months bumbling through a Sahara desert of a hitting drought.) He’s hitting .364 with two home runs and 10 RBI’s this month. I’d still argue Hunter should have been benched during his pathetic July and August, but now at least the Twins are being rewarded for their patience.

Sano Is Still A Boss

Oh and while Miguel Sano might not be hitting with a 1.000 OPS right now, he’s still leading the team with a .882 OPS for the month of September.

Our Apollo 13 Pitching Staff

This spring, the Twins launched their module out into the deep space of a grueling 162 season pieced together with a bunch of faulty components but somehow jury-rigged Kyle Gibson, Mike Pelfrey, Tommy Milone, Phil Hughes, Trevor May/Ervin Santana, and Tyler Duffey into a workable rotation. They picked up Kevin Jepsen and Neal Cotts to steady the bullpen. Which is good because our strongest performers of the first half, Glen Perkins, Blaine Boyer and Ryan Pressly have fallen apart or gotten injured.

Our reaction every time a Twins pitcher does well: wait, really?

Our reaction every time a Twins pitcher does well: wait, really?

Pitching staff inconsistency is a drag on our playoff hopes.

Kyle Gibson has ended up leading our mediocre starting staff, and only he and recent addition Tyler Duffey have an ERA below 4.00. Tommy Milone was coming on strong and had lowered his ERA to 3.54 after a strong outing versus the Royals on September 7th. But after getting roughed up both in his last start and tonight his ERA has ballooned to 4.08.

Ervin Santana has been pretty steady lately after a very shaky August (the bullpen cost him a win last night.) Phil Hughes was bad in his first start of the DL and it’s hard to expect much better given his poor performance even before back pain sidelined him. Mike Pelfrey got his last start skipped (hallelujah) but is still somehow in the picture despite five straight low quality starts previous to that.

Perhaps we can ride out our Apollo 13 pitching staff to a postseason bid. Ultimately though they are still limping along with a bunch of patched together ill-fitting components that could break down at any time. And that’s what makes this Twins season exciting but also seemingly destined to burn up upon re-entry.

New Stars Arise in the Minnesota Twins Lineup

Twins Hitters by OPS per month

I thought a lighter post was in order after a long post trying to make sense of rent control so I turned to baseball. The Minnesota Twins haven’t collapsed like many predicted. Buoyed by the meteoric rise of rookie slugger Miguel Sano, the team has stayed in the Wild Card race just 1.5 games behind the Texas Rangers for the second spot.

Meanwhile some veterans hitters have slumped, none more than hobbling 40-year-old outfield Torii Hunter, who has hit just .161 since July 1. Twins beat writer Mike Berardino has an interesting theory than Hunter injured his hip on June 30th in Cincinnati. My theory is simpler: Hunter is old as balls. We cannot pin all of the Twins’ offensive anemia—the team ranks 29th in OBP and 22nd in OPS—on Hunter. As you can see above, Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe saw their offensive production trail off in August.

Hunter, Dozier and Plouffe carried the team through its winningest month, May, each posting OPS above .950. However, the team’s recent successes have a lot to do with Sano and shortstop Eduardo Escobar, who had a .952 OPS in August. The team has finally seen the solid starting shortstop right before their eyes in Escobar, and wisely, if belatedly, started giving him regular playing time.

The Twins lineup is stronger with Escobar at his natural position at short every day. The question is what else can be done to optimize the lineup and do something about our sinking team OBP, which is a paltry .303 and worst in the American League. Benching Hunter is the easiest solution, making all the more sense with Aaron Hicks returned from the 15-day DL today. Hicks had a monster 1.001 OPS July while Hunter nosedived.

Hicks, Rosario and Buxton would provide Twins their ultimate defensive outfield, all lightning quick with cannons for arms. It’d be fun to watch. Unfortunately, Buxton has not performed well at the plate and might soon find himself on the bench. Personally, I think Buxton talent is too great to give up on and we should ride out his offensive woes. But if the Twins do bench him, they should call up Max Kepler, who’s had a monster year for the Chattanooga Lookouts with a 1.000+ OPS. Kepler would provide them a high OBP guy and a solid defender.

Joe Mauer has sort of been a rock this year. Never spectacular but consistently posting his steady .711 OPS. Even his weakest month, May, saw him post an astronomical average with runners in scoring position (RISP) and his best monthly RBI total of 17.

Catcher Kurt Suzuki had been a drag on the team for much of the year, posting a terrible June and July. Recently though, Suzuki has looked better offensively posting his best month in August. That’s good, because backup catcher has been an even sorrier affair with Chris Hermann a complete mess at the plate.

Nunez has had surprising offensive success this year with a .745 OPS, but Nunez has the persistent problem of being a below average defender wherever we put him. He’d make a solid pinch-hitting option off the bench along with Kennys Vargas who had good re-debut yesterday drawing two walks and hitting a single.

Given their league worst .303 OBP, the Twins have relied on timely hitting and pitching. The team’s average with RISP has been fourth best in the majors at .280 with a fourth best OPS of .799. In the first half, timely pitching came largely via closer Glen Perkins. Perkins converted every save opportunity leading up to the All Star break, but neck problems derailed him and now back spasms have sidelined him. Free agent pickup Kevin Jepsen has filled in admirably as closer and hasn’t blown a save yet in his absence, knock on wood.

Starting pitching has been sporadic, but vastly improved over last year. Starters have managed a 4.22 ERA good for 15th best in the majors.

Mike Pelfrey has had a bounce back year; the ball literally bounces around a lot with him on the mound given the .294 average he allows to batters. Pelfrey has been lucky, wriggling out of all too frequent jams often enough to allow him to post a 3.85 ERA and keep his job.

Tommy Milone has posted a 3.60 ERA; Kyle Gibson has hurled his way to a 3.84 ERA, and rookie Tyler Duffey has looked promising in 5 starts, posting a 4.56 ERA despite being thrown to the wolves, err carnivorous Blue Jays in his first start. Duffey’s filled in for injured Phil Hughes who regressed to his career norm this year with a 4.49 ERA with a whooping 28 home runs allowed before going on the DL with a bad back. Finally, Ervin Santana has limped to a 5.40 ERA after missing the whole first half serving a 80 day suspension.

Santana had been pitching so poorly that his starting job looked in jeopardy. But in his last start, Santana dazzled with 10 strikeouts in 7 shutout innings and probably bought himself some time to get his shit together. Unfortunately, Terry Ryan has ruled out calling up star prospect Jose Berrios from the minors despite his utter dominance and unparalleled upside compared to our other mediocre staff devoid of top of the rotation talent. Twinkietown tried to defend that decision, saying keeping Berrios in the minors helps the team defend some other promising prospects from being pilfered in the Rule 5 draft. Fair enough, but if Berrios doesn’t make the club next year, something more idiotic and bizarre is going on.

In the meantime, we find ourselves with five mid to back of the rotation guys on our pitching staff, plus one stashed in the bullpen (May), one stashed on the DL (Hughes) and one stashed almost perpetually on the 60-day DL (Nolasco). That’s eight mid to back of the rotation starters and no ace. Welcomes to the Minnesota Twins, people.

Controlling the Rent Control Debate

Erica C. Barnett interviewed City Council candidate Jon Grant last week and really grilled him, prodding him with pointed questions on affordable housing and his support for rent control. Barnett had already been a vocal critic of Grant’s, so Grant likely knew he was about to have his feet put to the fire.  Read for yourself, but what struck me is how weak Barnett’s logic is on rent control despite her vehement opposition to it.

Barnett asked: “The major cities that have rent control, including New York, LA, and San Francisco, are also the most expensive cities in the US. That says to me that rent control doesn’t work, and it’s not just me—virtually all economists agree with that assessment. Why do you support rent control?” Grant’s answer focused on affordability in times of rapid rent hikes and ignored the suspect premise of her question.

NYC: Correlation Does Not Equal Causation

The first commenter, one “Trevor,” pounced on the logical weakness though: “If you want to use NY as an example, one could use the same shoddy logic to argue that ‘density doesn’t work’ to provide affordable housing. See the fallacy.” Trevor cited a Pacific Standard article by Jake Blumgart titled In Defense of Rent Control, which expanded the argument:

“But a comprehensive review of literature by New York housing lawyer Timothy Collins found that the received wisdom regarding rent regulations is overly simplistic—partially because hard ceilings on rents are often imagined, while the reality is more often (as in New York’s case) a more measured approach meant to discourage landlords from dramatically raising rents and displacing tenants” [Blumgart].

In fact, New York City has just 27,000 rent-controlled units remaining from a high of 2 million in the 1950’s, and a steadily shrinking number of rent stabilized units—still 47% of rentals. Rent control opponents love to label rent stabilization “just a rebranding” of rent control, but in New York City they are distinct programs with separate rules. Generally speaking, rent stabilization allows for gradual increases based on inflation rates, but often new buildings are exempt from the program. In New York, the median rates of rent-controlled units are actually increasing faster than rent-stabilized units due to the rules governing each. In both cases, though, rents remain well below market-rate units.

New York City is an expensive place to rent. But it would be even more expensive without rent stabilization. Rent stabilization allows some economic diversity: “New York’s moderate rent regulations have had few, if any, of the negative side effects so confidently predicted by industry advocates… More important, rent regulations have been the single greatest source of affordable housing for middle‐ and low‐income households.” [Collins cited in Blumgart]

Free Market Alternative in Massachusetts

So what happens in cities that had rent control until they come to Jesus and let the purifying light of the free market shine on the rental market—hallelujah? Well turns out rents go up a lot in formerly controlled units. Boston and Cambridge are cities that had rent control before then lost it, and new affordable units didn’t materialize out of thin air riding on the angelic wings of the free market:

“In 1994, real estate interests in Massachusetts organized a statewide referendum to end rent control—which only existed in Boston, Cambridge, and Brookline—and just barely won. But Census data shows that Boston’s vacancy rate was four percent before the regulations were phased out and 2.9 percent four years after they were done away with—scrapping rent control had, at the very least, not generated a measurable effect on apartment availability. The median price for a two-bedroom apartment doubled in the meantime” [Blumgart].

In Cambridge too the low-income segment dropped out of the market as rents shot up: “From a modest survey of 1,000 households, city officials concluded that decontrolled rents overall jumped by more than 50% between 1994 and 1997 (from an average of $504 a month to $775), outpacing market rates. Over the same period, complaints of eviction also rose by 33%” [The Economist, 4/30/1998] Apparently, there was an uptick in new units, but not at affordable rates. Today, the median rental price in Cambridge is listed at $2,800 and $2500 in Boston, according to Zillow. Thus even with decades of the free market working its “magic,” rents still skyrocketed. A freer market didn’t solve the affordability problem.

Fear and Loathing in Seattle

One alternative to rent control is microunits like these Apodments out my window. But then Seattle didn't like those too much either.

One alternative to rent control is microunits like these Apodments out my window. But then Seattle didn’t like those too much either.

In 1981 riding a vaporous Reagan high, Washington state banned rent control via voter referendum. Rent control has been a legal impossibility in the Evergreen State ever since but that doesn’t lessen the loathing market types still feel for it. It does feel like howling in the wind to say a word in rent control’s defense, especially in a city with a secret libertarian tinge like Seattle. A few weeks back, The Seattle Times piled on with a story on how absurd and impractical rent control is. The author relied heavily on statistics from Zillow backed up with a blanket statement that ‘rent control is widely dismissed by economists’ to back up the realtor line they were shamelessly shilling. Like Barnett pointed out, it’s true most economists say rent control doesn’t work. However, economists’ response is so knee-jerk to seem autonomic, ill considered even.

Economists’ litany of complaints against rent control includes causing shortages in the housing supply, poor upkeep, long waiting lines for rent controlled units, and “pulling up the drawbridge” on potential new tenants moving to a city. As we’ve seen though it’s hard to isolate rent control as the cause of any of these maladies in the real world how ever often they pop up in the theoretical models of economists.

Accepting for a second, the rent control is ineffective, where would one expect to find affordable housing in America? Not in car-dependent suburbs, I would contend. Americans often idiotically overlook transportation costs when determining acceptable housing costs, yet AAA estimates owning and operating a sedan cost about $9,000 per year, on average, and closer to $11,000 for an SUV. How is a moderate-income person supposed to afford their rent let alone a car? Yet the vast majority of suburbs are designed so that car ownership is a prerequisite. Thus, any affordable housing in the suburbs, should it even exist, comes with the asterisk of car costs.

So what option are we left? Since the suburbs are a rather bleak place for the poor due to their car-dependent design, cities cannot simply displace their poor and pass them off on their suburbs and expect a good result—at least not until the suburbs are retrofitted for a multimodal lifestyle. In the meantime, cities must take on more responsibility for providing affordable housing. Seattle is paying lip service to this conundrum. Will the modest linkage fee in HALA get implemented and will it provide enough affordable housing to replace units? Can we wait half a decade for the new government units to come into the market? Or will a generation of moderate income families be priced out of Seattle before that happens.

The free market argument hints this end of affordable housing will never come because the market sort of steps in and perhaps the price of some units drop to thanks to the relieved housing price pressure of the new market rate units. In fact, we aren’t even supposed to worry if all the new units are expensive luxury units because that will mean those wealthy tenants won’t be competing with middle income people for older stock. In theory, that works. But supply has to catch up with demand. I don’t think that will happen anytime soon in Seattle. Seattle is a small enough city that the current pace of rapid growth could see affordable parts of the city remade as upper middle class haunts and the poor shown the door to the suburbs.

The free market argument also goes that resistance is futile since the wealthy will outbid the poor anyway and displace them to suburbia. Even if true, I’d argue the free market folks would still have to show that a market rate building spree would in itself avert this fate or just make it more spectacular for skyline porn fans.

One thing is for certain. Rent control is illegal in Washington state and some housing advocates and urbanists like Erica Barnett do not want us even considering repealing that ban. They consider it a waste of time and politically dead in the water. For a politician to talk about rent control is demagoguery to these free market cheerleaders. There’s no denying it’s a tough sell, especially among Republicans (and conservative Democrats for that matter).  Republicans control the senate, creating an apparent impasse. However, that a thing is tough political sell isn’t an argument against its merit per se. And all the knockdown arguments against rent control that economists apparently hang their hats on seem to be built on circumstantial evidence. A sensible rent stabilization program could be part of an ever elusive affordable housing solution in Seattle. To preserve affordable housing, the government is going to have to intervene much more than I think either it or the Seattle media seems comfortable with at this point. So why not repeal the ban to at least allow for the possibility?