One of the more exciting ideas in the new Transit Master Plan is the Rapid Streetcar Network, which is a way of having Seattle control its own transit destiny. The crucial word is “rapid,” which makes this potentially transformative rather than a fancier bus line. The lines would have significant stretches of dedicated right-of-way and ubiquitous priority treatments. But how are Seattle’s existing and under-construction lines doing in this regard?
According to SDOT’s Ethan Melone, of the 18 signalized intersections on the South Lake Union line, ten have some sort of signal priority or preemption, while only one has a queue jump.
That’s not ideal, but it’s a magic carpet compared to the First Hill Line. I count twenty-two signals each way, and Mr. Melone confirms there will be only four priority signals: across Broadway & Boren and Broadway & Howell in both directions; southbound, the left from Broadway to Yesler and the right from 14th to Jackson, across the diagonal of Rainier/Boren; and northbound, the left turns on and off 14th Ave.
Mr. Melone explains that cost, which is “a few thousand dollars per intersection,” is not the constraint. Instead, the transit lines and high vehicle volumes that cross Broadway make “it difficult to prioritize green time for the streetcar through movement, because of the impacts to transit/traffic on the other movements.” However, he adds:
Signal priority is therefore pretty limited, but we have made other changes—signalized left turn pockets on Broadway, the southbound exclusive track on 14th, and the streetcar-only approach lanes at each terminus, some new left turn restrictions—that supplement the signal priority in terms of speeding up the streetcar operation as much as possible in this corridor.
I find this disappointing for reasons of perception and branding. Although from an engineering perspective the time penalty of a traffic light may be small, coming to a complete stop creates the perception that the ride is slow. If the city can show voters that the streetcar network is more than just more transit stuck in traffic, they might be more inclined to support it. And frankly, if rail isn’t a means of making priority more politically viable the capital expense is much less compelling in corridors that don’t need the extra capacity.
As a candidate, Mayor McGinn understood this, saying that we should “strive to make [the FHSC] quick and separate it from traffic as much as is feasible.” Obviously, there are many cooks in the kitchen of this project besides the Mayor, but it’s sad his department hasn’t been more imaginative in fulfilling that sentiment.