As we reported last week, Metro is contemplating permanent closure of the stop on Columbia just east of 2nd Ave. This stop, served by the 21X, 54, 55, 56X, 113, 120, 121, 122 and 125, is very well used, especially in the afternoon rush hour. Unfortunately, at that time of day, Columbia is typically backed up to 3rd Ave and beyond, as cars and buses queue to get on to the viaduct.

Photo from 3rd & Union looking north
June 9th, PM peak: Buses backed up to 3rd & Pike due to viaduct traffic. Photo by author.

Sometimes, accidents on the southern section of the viaduct bring traffic to a standstill, which, of course, reduces Columbia to a standstill and causes severe congestion on 3rd Ave. Even when such pathological road conditions do not exist, Columbia impacts travel times and reliability on 3rd. Were it not for the bus lane between 3rd and 2nd, and the bus signal at 2nd, I doubt buses would be able to get on the viaduct with any reliability at all. More below the jump.

I asked Irin Limargo at Metro for some background:

As you already know, on Third Avenue we have seen an increase in travel times primarily due to the congestion on Columbia Street since SR 99 has been reduced to two lanes in each direction.  The Columbia Street on ramp can become backed up causing delays to our buses and other traffic on Columbia.  Even with the lane reduction, the SR 99 Alaskan Way Viaduct is still the fastest, most reliable pathway from downtown Seattle to West Seattle because the Spokane Street Viaduct construction is still on-going and I-5 traffic during the afternoon peak is almost always congested.

We are working with the city of Seattle to explore different options to improve bus reliability.

  • Close the bus stop at Columbia/2nd Ave: When buses turn southbound on Third Ave and make the right turn at Columbia Street, they can turn directly onto the middle lane and head directly to the Columbia on-ramp; they won’t need to merge to serve the bus stop. This option will affect riders currently using the stop (almost 1,500 on and 400 off riders at this stop). They will have to board buses at the last bus stop on Third Avenue before making the turn onto Columbia. Currently, this stop on Third is at Seneca Street, about four blocks away from the 2nd & Columbia stop.  Some riders from the south end of downtown are already walking several blocks, so this option may turn away some riders.  The advantage of this option is that it provides alternative routings via I-5 or 1st Ave S during major incidents on SR 99 , or during severe congestion where traffic isn’t moving at all.  During reroutes we should not miss any stops, and there will be less confusion to our riders.
  • Keep the bus stop at Columbia/2nd, and extend the existing bus lane on Columbia between 3rd and 2nd Avenue another block to 1st Ave South with an advanced transit signal at 1st and Columbia: The concept is similar to the period when we had police officers helping buses advance to the Columbia viaduct on ramp during the first week of the SR 99 lane reductions. We are evaluating impacts to riders and general purpose traffic, and also evaluating any technical issues of adding an advanced signal at 1st and Columbia.  If this option is too expensive to implement, or if it would create negative impacts to all roadway users in general, this option may not be carried forward.  Keep in mind that any capital investment added as part of this option will only last until 2015 when the tunnel is scheduled to open. At that time, buses will be rerouted to use the new on/off ramps to SR-99 in southend of downtown Seattle.

I’m not a regular commuter to West Seattle or Burien, so I don’t have a particularly strong opinion on what should happen here. I lean towards the former solution, as it seems cheaper and more flexible: signal priority won’t do much for you if viaduct traffic is barely moving. Those of you who use this stop or these routes regularly should send your thoughts to customer.comments@kingcounty.gov with “Columbia/2nd Ave” in the subject line; you have until August 12th.

28 Replies to “2nd & Columbia”

    1. Presumably that removes some of their flexibility for rerouting. But an extra four blocks is a long way for a downtown stop, especially since some people are traveling from further south in downtown/Pioneer Square.

      1. The northbound buses already don’t stop until Union, so people in Pioneer Square already have to walk several block that direction anyway.

  1. I don’t know what to do with this stop, but the situation seems related to WSDOT’s inability to conceive of turning an existing highway lane into a transit lane, or of the state highway patrol’s failure to enforce the yield-to-buses law whatsoever. (I think the Patrol does an awesome job, FWIW, but they aren’t under order to watch out for those who fail to yield to buses.)

    But this may all be moot in a few years, at least as applies to this stop. Or is it?

    If the Normans of the world want us to spend less money on building grade-separated high-capacity transit, then tell the politicians to give transit more dedicated ROW on the existing concrete.

    1. Brent, I’m not sure what you expect WSDOT to do to resolve this except turn the Columbia on ramp into a transit only ramp. I doubt even SDOT would agree to that.

  2. I work in an office building right above this stop and there is a bus-only light signal so the bus can get a head start getting into the lane to get onto 99 between 2nd and 1st. Most “regular” car drivers know about the light, but most newbies when they see the bus go, they go as well even though their signal is red. Most bus drivers just wail on their horn when this happens – I hear it several times a day.

  3. I like option two.

    Another thing that would help is to have Seattle put up some “Don’t block the box” signs with heavy fines if you do, just like they have in NYC – and enforce it. I see it every day at places like 3rd and Spring, 2nd & Columbia, and a lot more.

  4. Solution two is the better choice. West Seattle riders at the south end of downtown would have to walk all the way to Seneca to get home. No other constituency would have such poor bus access. I think this is more driven by SDOT than Metro. They should prioritize bus movement over car movement on Columbia.

    1. “No other constituency would have such poor bus access.”

      Have you tried to catch a Metro bus in Skykomish lately?

      1. You’re gratuitously misreading his comment. Clearly he means that the south end of downtown has much poorer access to West Seattle, White Center and Burien than the north end, and I agree entirely with that sentiment.

      2. When Routes 22, 56 and 57 serve the south end of downtown and go to West Seattle. I just don’t think having to walk a few more blocks is that big an issue for such a sweeping generalization.

      3. Frequency and travel times to population and ridership centers west of the Duwamish on those routes (plus others like the 132 to Burien) are much inferior to what’s provided on the north end of downtown by the 120 and 54/55. Given the job density in the south end and its connection to regional services like Amtrak and Sounder, I think you can argue that the south end is already under-served in this respect, and pulling the stop on Columbia would exacerbate that situation. That’s what I took from RBC’s comment, and I agree entirely.

  5. Definitely Option Two. But this post leads me to a general question: Is it just my imagination, or is car traffic this year especially bad and getting progressively worse, both in Downtown Seattle and everywhere in the region?

    It’s puzzling. A slow economy should be resulting in less traffic. Am I the only one seeing this?

    Mark Dublin

    1. “A slow economy should be resulting in less traffic.”

      The economy ain’t slow downtown. Tech companies are hiring up a storm and leasing office space left and right. Also, part of it is viaduct replacement construction, which has made 1st Ave in particular much worse.

      1. Thanks, Bruce. Maybe your point also holds for other Seattle neighborhoods, and the suburbs. Traffic’s bad here in Ballard. Hate to think what’ll happen if CRC doesn’t pass-though current level of service really isn’t up to the job.

        If our economy really is doing well, in defiance of contrary trends in other places, we’ve got to figure out how to plug the prosperity into the transit necessary to maintain it.

        Mark Dublin

    2. I think it is from the narrowing of the Viaduct to two lanes this past spring, as the Metro spokeswomen mentions. It’s now common to see traffic backed up on S/B Aurora almost all the way to the Aurora Bridge every afternoon.

  6. Here’s a quirk — when I rode the #54 through 2/Columbia on Tuesday afternoon, cars were queued WB on Columbia. The bus grabbed its passengers, then passed a few cars and merged into the lineup a ways downhill. (Keeping in mind that state law REQUIRES drivers to yield to a merging bus, which they happened to do.)

    In other words, the Columbia stop functioned in this instance like a one-block bypass lane for the bus. Which raises the question, could @kcmetrobus planners make lemonade out of this lemon?

  7. Keep in mind that any capital investment added as part of this option will only last until 2015 when the tunnel is scheduled to open. At that time, buses will be rerouted to use the new on/off ramps to SR-99 in southend of downtown Seattle.

    When are these ramps scheduled to open? I’m thinking it’s well ahead of the tunnel being open so moving toward that routing as soon as possible should be considered. Maybe even tough it out until then. Of course the best solution to congestion on the viaduct is to implement early tolling to pay for the tunnel. That way we can find out sooner rather than later if people are really going to be willing to pony up the cash to cover the bonds sold to fund construction of the Debt Big Tunnel.

  8. Mark, I tend to think that it isn’t the economy around here in general that is doing really well, but just that Tech in particular around here is humming along as per usual and maybe a little better than a year ago or so, but then again, our economy is highly IT centric.

    I go with the latter solution. Not only would it be unfair to all the people that would have to hoof over to 3rd and Seneca, but can you imagine how crowded that bus stop will be if you close 2nd and Columbia? Pedestrians would barely be able to pass by on the sidewalk if all those commuters attempted to stand at 3rd and Seneca, also the wait times for boarding and bus arrival times could be detrimentally affected.

  9. Remember everyone, that all of these buses come off the viaduct on the inbound routing and make the first stop at 2nd/Seneca. These people are already used to walking. On the other hand, part of the problem in the owner of the parking garage on Columbia street. Every time a bus blocks his driveway, he calls in a complaint. Therefore, only one 60ft bus can load people at the zone during rush hour, meaning only one bus is getting through per light cycle. It’s a problem either way.

    1. It isn’t just the distance but also the time penalty that matters. If people can’t leave work earlier, they’ll get to the bus stop later. That could mean missing the bus they currently catch. For people like me with a young child at home (with an early bedtime), that can be a big deal.

  10. I don’t think closing the stop on Columbia would make a big difference in congestion and travel time for these buses. The big problem here is there are too many lanes merging in a short distance. Between 3rd and 2nd, Columbia has 4 lanes. A short two blocks later all the vehicles are merging down to one lane on the ramp to AWV.

  11. As has been pointed out elsewhere, eliminating the bus stop doesn’t accomplish much. The buses still have to make the turn from 3rd onto Columbia in order to access the Viaduct on-ramp.

    I go through here nearly every day, and this is my usual bus stop after work. One of the major unacknowledged problems here seems to be SOV’s illegally turning from 2nd onto Columbia.

    The traffic backs up from the Viaduct whenever there’s an accident and especially on game days. At rush hour, the curb lane on 2nd is a right-turn only or transit-through lane. But drivers get fed up actually waiting in traffic so they start turning from the next lane over. The problem is that traffic flow on Columbia isn’t designed to take cars from two lanes. When people follow the law, spaces get opened up for folks (and buses) coming down the hill from 3rd.

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