There’s been lots of coverage lately about Sounder North’s poor ridership, but not much attention paid to the transit alternative many riders are choosing instead, namely Sound Transit’s freeway-running I-5 express buses, 510, 511, 512 and 513. These routes, as the Sounder North Citizen Oversight Panel report notes, are currently overcrowded in the peaks, with “riders standing in the aisles” — and Snohomish County to Seattle is a long way to stand. In the 2013 Draft Service Implementation Plan, which I began writing about yesterday, Sound Transit staff proposed changes to the I-5 corridor to address overcrowding, among other problems, and I was able to discuss the changes in detail with ST staff.
The current service pattern on I-5 north is a confusing number-soup of routes which operate differently at different times of day. The 510 serves the Everett city center, the 511 serves Ash Way, the 513 serves south Everett, and the 512 serves both Ash Way and Everett. The 510 and 511 operate all day, except on Sundays and holidays when the 512 operates in their place; the 513 is peak only. Depending on whether the I-5 express lanes are open at the time, the 510 and 511 may or may not serve the freeway stops at 45th St or 145th St, which is problematic for riders, as when those stops are served, the 510 and 511 are frequently the fastest way to get from Downtown to the west side of the U-District or the east side of Wallingford — but if you get on the wrong bus, you could end up in Lynnwood before you know it.
The restructured pattern, shown on the map above, would be much simpler. Route 512 would provide all-day service throughout the entire route, serving all stops on every trip, except in the peak period in the peak direction, when the 512 would split into the 510, 511 and 513, which would use the express lanes and thus skip the 45th and 145th stops. This is a much easier pattern for riders to wrap their minds around: if you see a 512 in downtown Seattle, you know it’ll stop in the U-District; if it’s anything else, move along. The off-peak frequency north of Ash Way increases, although interestingly the total number of trips on I-5 per day will actually decrease. Essentially, this restructure shifts trips from the mid-day to peak, but compensates for that by making the midday service structurally more useful and comprehensible. It’s an operating-budget-neutral restructure whose only cost is the deferred retirement of some coaches.
Overall, I have nothing but nice things to say about this proposed change within the context of the available funds — it’s a model of the kind of efficient, rider-oriented simplification and improvement I’d like to see from every agency, everywhere in the region. My wish list (pending funding) would be to upgrade the periods of 20-minute service to 15 minute service, to make the schedule simpler and more consistent, and further develop all-day ridership on this corridor. In addition, extending the span of southbound service in the evening would make the service more useful for Seattle residents — last trip out of Everett is planned to be about 10:25 PM, which makes the service of borderline utility for attending events in Everett. I’d cheerfully pay with North King money for two Monday-Saturday one-way southbound “cleanup trips” departing Everett at 10:55 and 11:40.
After the jump, the Olive Way freeway station idea.
All this great work by Sound Transit on the I-5 north corridor brings to mind the topic of a potential Olive Way freeway station, the benefits of which Zach did a great job of cataloging a few weeks ago. Now that we’ve obtained a much more useful all-day service at minimal cost, how about making it more accessible, at minimal cost? I discussed the obstacles to building such a stop at length with ST staff, and my takeaway is that it’s doable, if riders in the neighborhood organize and push the ST board to do it. While no formal studies have been done, staff have informally contemplated the idea and are aware of no technical issues that would render the project infeasable. It would require more effort than just bolting in a new shelter — staff would have to come up with a design, study its effects, and get every relevant jurisdiction on board — Seattle, King County, WSDOT. But from what I heard, this is all doable if there’s enough public pressure.
The biggest obstacle in actually an internal, bureaucratic one. Most agencies have a pot of money set aside for minor capital improvements that are larger than can be accommodated in the operations and maintenance budget, but not big enough to require the full scrutiny of a multi-million dollar capital project. When planners think of small projects which could save the agency money and benefit riders, they can write up the project, put it in a hopper and it’ll eventually get done. Sound Transit had such a thing at one point, but it was cut in one of the many rounds of cost savings the agency has been through. Because an Olive Way stop would require more than just bolting in a new sign and shelter, it would have to go through the same exhaustive internal procedures as something like a new freeway ramp.
This obviously makes no sense, as such low-cost high-impact improvements are precisely the kind of things which agencies should be doing in all funding environments, positive and negative. An Olive Way freeway stop would actually save money for ST, as it would allow the agency to remove a bus from the 545 schedule in the morning peaks, by eliminating the time-consuming Capitol Hill deviation. Essentially, Sound Transit is wasting operations money for the sake of a small amount of capital money.
The internal machinations needn’t concern neighbors who want better bus service. The original 545 deviation was a product of small scale, but persistent neighborhood activism, and there’s no reason why that can’t be repeated. So, if you’re a transit rider who lives on Capitol Hill and fancies a try at neighborhood organizing, here’s a great chance. If a serious effort arises to put in an Olive Way stop, I’m sure STB editors would support it.
As I noted yesterday, there are several opportunities to provide feedback for Sound Transit on the Draft Service Implementation, including an open house on a bus
tomorrow this evening, in Westwood Village. You can also send in comments by emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org.