Photo by Mike Bjork

In brief response to Kevin Desmond’s op-ed, I agree that at this stage of rail service it’s probably premature to kick all the buses out of the tunnel. A train running every 7.5 minutes in each direction leaves a lot of capacity on the table. It’s one major drawback of ST building one of its lower ridership segments first.

That said, 15 incidents a month — which I suspect happen mainly during peak commuting hours — really aren’t acceptable. I think Mr. Desmond would agree that there’s room for improvement. What I don’t understand is why Metro would add peak trips in the tunnel (the 217*) even as Metro and Sound Transit are trying to troubleshoot the unique problems with this one-of-a-kind system.

There’s always a tradeoff between letting more riders benefit from the tunnel and diluting that benefit by putting in too many buses. Before there was Link, not every bus that could use the tunnel did so. Today, trains occupy a large amount of the capacity. What’s different, though, is that given a multibillion dollar investment in reliability, expectations are higher. Someone interested in its success, and presumably Desmond is, should be looking for ways to remove obstacles to its smooth operation.

It’s premature to kick all the buses out of the tunnel, but we should reduce it to whatever level is necessary to reach an acceptable level of reliability for all modes that use the DSTT. Once the problems are licked, Metro and ST can discuss cautious additions to the list of routes that use the tunnel.

*My bus, as it happens.

60 Replies to “Editorial: Fewer Buses Belong in the Tunnel”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree.

    In the three times I went to Seattle last month, I always got stuck in a bus in the tunnel. There should certainly be some sort of reorganization that allows light rail AND buses to travel at an acceptable speed.

    Perhaps when U-Link opens, buses should be kicked to 3rd Ave

    1. At least some should be moved to other avenues to avoid backups on 3rd. I, for one, would like to see more buses on 5th like there used to be, but there isn’t an easy northbound equivalent.

  2. Buses in the tunnel, even when held up slightly and occasionally by trains, are still faster than the same route on the surface. More importantly it keeps the buses off the downtown streets which was the whole point of the tunnel in the first place. Let’s let Metro work out the kinks. From my amateurish and infrequent observations I see no problems that cannot be resolved with a little tweaking and (as mentioned in a previous post) improved communications.

    1. Here’s a suggestion: buses that operate in the tunnel should not collect fares in the tunnel no matter what time it is. Having Link trains wait in the tunnel bores while people fumble with change boarding a bus is just dumb.

      1. Hmmm… When I’ve driven through, typically just after 7pm, I don’t see much traffic – bus or trains. And yes, I typically know when a train is behind or in front of me. I suspect continued training would help greatly. I still see some operators waiting for runners when I know that there are several buses, and probably a train, stuck behind them. If you want operations to stay on time, Metro needs to instill a bit of ruthlessness in operators while they are operating in the tunnel – especially frequent routes like the 550, 41, and 71-73’s. Just get moving!

      2. “I still see some operators waiting for runners when I know that there are several buses, and probably a train, stuck behind them. If you want operations to stay on time, Metro needs to instill a bit of ruthlessness in operators while they are operating in the tunnel”

        That’s the exact point that I was going to make. At rush hour its imperative that the buses move into and out of the stations as quickly as possible. Westlake was a madhouse today at rush hour, yet I still saw a 550 driver stop two or three times to let a runner on. By the time they finally got moving the next 550 had come and the runner could have just caught that one! I also don’t know why they don’t let the inbound routes move all the way to the end of the platform before unloading. There’s no reason that an inbound 212, 255 or 550 should have to stop at the first bay to unload.

      3. You mean we’re not allowed to do that? ;) Frankly, I pull all the way forward if I know there are buses behind me. Sometimes passengers get a little antsy, like I’m going to miss the stop, but a simple announcement calms everybody down.

    2. If we had Forward Thrust, there would be no such downtown tunnel. If the goal is to keep buses of downtown streets so cars can rule there, then I would say that we are talking about the wrong thing.

      1. Downtown streets are heavily congested already, and with the addition of all those buses that are currently in the tunnel they would be overloaded. At rush hour, 3rd Ave is buses only but is pretty congested with buses. Buses constantly come through the bus lanes on 2nd and 4th in each direction. 1st Ave is always very congested, mostly because of the high number of pedestrians all over the place, but it still has frequent buses to Ballard and West Seattle. The tunnel doesn’t take buses off the surface streets to get out of the way of the cars. It greatly increases the overall transit capacity of Downtown.

      2. Transit capacity shouldn’t be between stealing between rail and bus. It should be between transit and auto.

    3. So if you kick out a few routes that carry, say, 5,000 people, to reduce the inconvenience for the 20,000 on Link, don’t you cause a net benefit?

    1. That is by no means guaranteed. As I understand it the contract between Metro and ST comes up for renegotiation next year, and that will determine how many buses operate in the tunnel in 2012 and beyond.

    2. There probably will still be some buses in the tunnel, but I’m hoping they’ll only keep two or three very high ridership routes in each direction, say the 41, the 255, the 101, and the 550, and then take all those out once North Link opens.

      1. Will North Link (obviating part of the 41) open before East Link (obviating the 550)? And as was suggested in another thread, might the 101 be rerouted to end at Rainier Beach Station?

      2. My rough math shows that with 30-minute headway on the current 101, which is the case most of the day except on Sunday mornings and in rush hour, total average wait+travel time from S. Renton P&R to ID Station is ca. 45 minutes. (This is assuming an average 15-minute wait.) Truncating at Rainier Beach Station and decreasing the headway to 20 minutes would result in a two-seat ride that would come in a little under 50 minutes on average, wait+travel time. Yes, the trip would take a few minutes longer to downtown (before factoring in I-5 congestion), but would be significantly faster to all other destinations along Link.

        The truncation would reduce the travel time for one run (starting at Renton TC) from ca. 45 minutes to ca. 20 minutes, not including layover. Some of that savings could be used to restore frequent Sunday morning service, and still leave room for a service hour reduction in the 25-50% range, while improving service.

        That savings doesn’t include the ripple effect on service hour savings in the tunnel and on downtown surface streets.

      3. North Link will probably open in 2020, while East Link will probably open in 2021, with further extensions to the North, East, and South opening in a couple stages until 2023.

  3. “The train is being held due to traffic ahead. We apologize for the delay.”
    And there I sit waiting for this ‘multibillion dollar investment in reliability’, bewildered as to why a train has to repeatedly wait for the traffic ahead. Frustrating.

    1. These announcements on Link trains are made very commonly along MLK Way, also. Do you blame those delays on buses, too?

      1. Nor have I, which is why I would question whether or not Norman has ridden Link through the Valley recently.

      2. I now ride on Link through the MLK corridor almost everyday and haven’t been stopped due to any delay’s in months. In fact, it appears that the operators are switching the traffic lights to green in their favor so they don’t have to stop.

        On the other hand, I have sludged through the tunnel so many times and am continually stopped near the end of each tunnel entrance only to hear the “delay” voice. It’s annoying, the buses should move to 3rd. A nice transit blvd sounds awesome.

    2. I haven’t heard that message in a long time. Pretty frustrating since I want to get a recording of it.

  4. Did all 15 bus breakdowns require a tow out of the DSTT? Or did most of them get running again with assistance from supervisors or Link Control? Training needs to include more troubleshooting and equipment awareness to prevent unnecessary “breakdowns” (wheelchair ramps getting stuck on platforms when coach is too close for example).

    We must stop requiring inbound bus routes from stopping at any one particular bay – they always should pull as far forward as possible (and only stop once) thus leaving room behind them for more buses both inbound and outbound using the “precious” platform time more efficiently.

    Buses need to be grouped better together so outbound service has a better chance of arriving at the proper platform location – minimizing the need to stop more than once at each station.

    All service both rail and bus must stop waiting for time at DSTT stations (or proceeding at less than the speed limit between stations) to meet scheduled time-points and outbound service must not leave downtown terminals early to try to avoid becoming late (anticipating DSTT delays). Both of these practices guarantee system delays during peak periods.

    After 7PM – all inbound buses must use all doors to deboard. Better yet, solve this issue by adopting POP fare policy getting all fare collection away from station platforms (will be mandatory if we change the RFA).

    Lets start with these and as mentioned elsewhere, keep the line of communication open between bus and rail (including operator level) and I think we will all be surprised at what the true capacity of the DSTT is.

    The extended days and hours of DSTT operation that Link has made necessary have benefitted all transit users no matter what mode they use. It only makes sense to make maximum use of the facility and that includes both bus and rail operation for the foreseeable future.

  5. That 15 incidents per month is out of how many trips through the tunnel? What’s the actual percentage?

    What is the time loss per incident as compared to overall non-delayed service?

    I would pose that 15 incidents per month – out of 30 days and thousands of trips through the tunnel for buses and trains alike – is a VERY small number.

    Saying that 15 incidents per month “isn’t acceptable” doesn’t say much. As compared to what?

    If 15 incidents of bus-related delays per month accounts for .002 percent of all service overall – is that really “unacceptable”?

    1. But that one doesn’t have any stations. Having buses and trains sharing platforms is the source of all our woes.

  6. There’s always a tradeoff between letting more riders benefit from the tunnel and diluting that benefit by putting in too many buses.

    What is the supposed benefit to transit riders of using the tunnel? The only benefit of the transit tunnel is to car drivers on the surface.

    There is no time savings for transit users. For example, the 217 to Issaquah takes 8 minutes to get from the University Street tunnel station to the I-90/Rainier stop, while the 554 to Issaquah on surface streets takes between 8-9 minutes without signal optimization to get from 2nd and University to the I-90/Rainier stop. If you include the time it takes to go underground, the 554 on the surface is faster every time.

    The only reason why buses and light rail go under streets is to maintain or increase car capacity on the surface. There is no speed benefit to transit riders (and I’m talking about the transit tunnel under existing streets, not new throughways like the Beacon Hill tunnel). Rapid metro lines (like the NYC subway) and heavy rail (like BART) are a different story.

    1. “What is the supposed benefit to transit riders of using the tunnel? The only benefit of the transit tunnel is to car drivers on the surface.”

      How about the benefit all of the other buses and their riders above ground have. Remember how bad traffic was when the tunnel was closed 2005-2007 and all tunnel buses where on 2nd/3rd/and 4th?. It got pretty bad.

      1. Actually, with all the changes they made to surface operations during the tunnel conversion there really weren’t any surface affects. Nobody really noticed. It wasn’t bad at all.

      2. Lazarus, what are you smoking? It was a lot better than the traffic apocalypse that was predicted, however I remember a lot of nights stuck in traffic driving the 550. If you’d care to see my unscheduled overtime sheets, I’d say that’s pretty good data as to how bad it actually was. That’s not to say they couldn’t fix it, but your description of the situation does not fit the facts.

        It seems pretty obvious that as North Link comes online, many bus routes will be truncated at points north and the downtown Seattle section replaced by Link. Once you get to the point where you have a reliable connection between Downtown Seattle and Brooklyn, Roosevelt, and Northgate, transfers become much more manageable, possibly even desirable. Obviously there will be a transition time that will be difficult, but shoving 50,000 riders up to the surface before North Link is up and running is a pretty stupid idea.

    2. It takes me half as long to ride a bus through the tunnel than on surface streets. The 14 is the only bus that goes end-to-end in the daytime, and suffers stoplights and traffic. With other routes you also have the additional expense of transfering at 3rd and Pine and walking a block to the other bus stop (thus one or two more traffic lights).

  7. Not just fewer but different buses belong in the tunnel.

    I’d like to see peak-only buses in the tunnel be de-emphasized or removed entirely. The DSTT, even with buses, can function much like a metro system if headways remain reliably distributed throughout the day rather than suffering through congested peak periods. It would be so helpful if people knew they could catch their tunnel bus at any time of day.

    Since we already roughly know what Link’s future is for the next 20 years, we can psychologically prepare the region for Link-only tunnel service by choosing to tunnel buses that either run all-day or roughly match future Link service. In short:

    (1. Surface the 74, 76, 77, 102, 212, 216, 217, 218, 225, 229, 256(!), 301, and 316
    (2. Keep the 41, 71, 72, 73, 101, 106, 150, 255, 550
    (3. Tunnel the 510, 511, 522(?), and 554(!)

    1. I came here to say exactly the same thing. It sounds like all the problems are with peak-period buses… so why are we stuffing those in? 3rd Ave has extra capacity during peak period, anyway.

      Also, one of the things that most bothers me about Metro’s alignments downtown is that buses to similar destinations often stop in different places, which means that you have to pick ahead of time which bus you’re trying for. For example, if I want to go to Fremont, I can’t take a 5 since it’s at a different stop. If I want to go to Ballard, I have to decide early between the 17 and the 18. If I want to go to Montlake, I can take the 255 in the tunnel, or 545 on the surface. Etc.

      I know that there are enough overlapping routes that this can’t be perfect, but I do think Metro can do a better job than they’re doing now.

      Also, why not add the 545 to the tunnel? East Link will eventually go to Overlake, so that seems like a logical candidate. (Anyway, the 510 and 511 are run by Community Transit, and so it would be much more complicated to get those in the tunnel.) Likewise for the 66. I’d rather see both of those in the tunnel even if it meant kicking out something else…

      1. It seems like those buses almost always run hybrids, at least from my experience.

      2. Yes, maybe on the weekends, but the 545 is mostly a 9500’s serie coach…..with some 9600 hybrids during the week. There isn’t enough 9600’s to operate the 522, 545. Maybe 554, but it doesn’t need a 60ft coach.

  8. The 101 does not need to clog either the tunnel or downtown streets as much as it does. It is the one route where riders are *forced* to go all the way downtown, with no transfers to any other routes along the way. If they want to connect to somewhere on the rail line, they have to go downtown and backtrack, or transfer in Renton.

    A new line, say a 103, that would follow the 101 route but continue up MLK Way and terminate at Rainier Beach Station would give S MLK Way riders much better options and connectivity and more frequency, but would also give a small dose of congestion relief to the tunnel and downtown.

    1. “A new route” would solve a lot of problems, but there’s not even funding to keep all of the routes we have.

      1. I’d like to see service scavenged from the 101 to create the 103. In fact, if the 101 were eliminated entirely and replaced with the 103 without keeping all the bus hours, the 102 would still provide half-hourly one-seat rides to downtown on this route during rush hour, while the switch to the 103 would increase frequency and capacity on this corridor (in addition to the obvious connectivity increase due to Linking).

  9. Bringing up the 217 is kind of a red herring, no? You are talking about 3 trips per peak period, in the tunnel, in the reverse commute direction. Not really adding much to the system.

    1. Perhaps, but putting 10 herrings together almost gets ya a respectable fish fry.

      1. You’re making me hungry.

        Seriously though, I agree with you that off-peak routes should be reduced or removed from the tunnel and that Metro and Sound Transit should start training riders by keeping routes inside the tunnel that will eventually be replaced by Link. Why we have routes like the 217, 257, 301, and 76 inside the tunnel is beyond me.

      2. 257 is a surface route (5th & 4th). 76 (and 77) are peak-only tunnel routes.

        For the most part, the tunnel routes seem to be ones that would lend themselves to future truncation, but there are obvious exceptions – the 255 being one although I suppose you could route it past the UW stadium and then truncate it at the UW. Hmmm… Maybe that’s not such a bad idea.

      3. I’d thought about the 150 for truncation, but really, without a Southcenter or Boeing Access Road Station, there’s no good places to go. I guess TIBS is literally just up Southcenter Blvd, but transferring to the train that soon makes it a pretty long trip.

        Or truncating at Sodo…

      4. As a regular rider of the 255, I’d support a truncation at Husky Stadium after U-Link opens because the Montlake flyer stop will go away.

      5. This is where a S. 133rd station would come in handy to intercept all of the routes using I-5 South of Seattle. If there were HOV direct access ramps it might even make sense to turn the longer-distance regional express services like the 59x there as they wouldn’t have to contend with traffic around Boeing Field or in Downtown Seattle.

    2. The point is not only capacity, but also legibility. Currently, the tunnel signs/schedules/maps list a bunch of routes which off-peak riders will never see, and which peak riders might assume run more often than they do.

      Take a look at this fantastic map. This map does an amazing job at showing you precisely where the tunnel buses can take you. The problem is that some of these destinations simply aren’t reachable from the tunnel at most times of day!

      Without the peak buses, this map would be even simpler, but more importantly, it would always be accurate. Just about any time you were in the tunnel, you could wait 15 minutes or less and be on a bus to any of these destinations.

  10. One way I suggested previously to reduce buses in the tunnel without reducing routes in the tunnel was to couple tunnel routes.

    This doesn’t just reduce bus trips through the tunnel, but allows some riders to not have to transfer in the tunnel. Each time a wheelchair rider can ride straight through the tunnel without getting on and off using a lift, it saves taxpayers a huge chunk of money in prevented slow-down time for every vehicle in the tunnel.

    If routes can’t be coupled well, then consider extending single routes to have stops on each end of the tunnel (like how the 41 continues to Stadium Station).

  11. YES… Surface the 76 back up topside, and counter clockwise… as it once did. I have NOT a CLUE why they sent it underground and reversed the run. All it did was add 40 minutes to all the south end downtown folks who used to use it to avoid 20 extra minutes in the tunnel to get home and night, and 20 extra minutes in the morning to tunnel to work.

    When they shifted I was commuting daily on it and NO ONE could figure out why it was changed to go underground. made no sense then… still does not now.

    1. It did not make it 20 minutes longer! I’m looking at a 76 schedule from 2 years ago, which shows the trip from 65th & 15th to 5th & Jefferson taking 12 minutes before 7am, and 15 minutes after. Now it shows it taking about 20 minutes after 7 to get to Pioneer Square Station, and about 23 minutes after seven. 76’s before the shakeup got to 3rd & James, above Pioneer Square Station, a couple minutes after 5th & Jefferson, so the 76 now takes just 5 or 6 minutes longer than it did to get to Pioneer Square. However, at the same time, it has become useful for people who work in central and north Downtown, and it now allows access to the International District. Overall, it’s a much more useful bus now that it’s in the tunnel.

      1. Alex,

        The run times are about the same… BUT if you work for the city, or in the Columbia Tower, or anywhere around that neighborhood, you now have A longer commute if you ride the 76.

        IF your destination was the Ravenna Park and Ride… you jumped on at 5th and James, spent 10 minutes commute, and you were there. NOW you get to spend 20 minutes thanks to the added weaving through the tunnel before you hit I-5…

        In reverse, the two destinations used to take 10 to 15 minutes… now its about 20 to 25… Real time, real ride… A bunch of us timed it many days following the change over.

        From mid town, the times work about the same. but if you were to use the last two stops heading NB out of south downtown (At Terrace and NB on 5th) to first stop… your commute just went out the door.

        HOWEVER from mid town you could take the 71, 72, 73,… only the 76 ran counter clockwise… the point being the folks the 76 reroute opened up to were already served quite well…

        The numbers that got on at the County Building were almost half the bus or more in the morning. The numbers that climbed on at the last stop prior to the express lanes in the evening filled the coach. I was there.

        Many still ride it, but they now have to leave earlier to be on time, and get home later. NOT an improvement for them. My job has since changed locations. But No one on the 76 of that bunch ever could understand the change.

  12. I would not only kick all buses out of the tunnel, I’d start eliminating all the express routes that are superceded by the Sounder and the LINK. There is no reason for multiple buses to do the same journey down I-5 if there can be a single line that connects to various feeders at places like Kent Station.

  13. Not that we have the oodles of money to do it, but it still doesn’t make sense to me why we don’t just have transfer stations at Union Station and the Convention Center. Then we just keep light rail and maybe some filler buses that go between the light rail runs (and make the tunnel free for all types of travel).

    It becomes more like a subway at that point, but it would keep all these buses both out of the tunnel and off the streets.

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