Main Street Transit Priority Mall Concept
The Pioneer Square transit mall we won’t get.

In 2016, when the Alaskan Way Viaduct is closed and demolition begins, King County Metro will lose its primary conduit into downtown Seattle from West Seattle and southwest King County. While all post-Viaduct pathways will be significantly slower and less reliable, the agency has to figure out the best replacement according to some combination of speed, reliability, access to the city center, and ease of operation. After eliminating options deemed unworkable, the choice basically boiled down to variations on two themes: a waterfront pathway, following the surface Alaskan Way to Colman dock, then up the hill to 3rd Ave via some combination of Marion and Columbia; and a Pioneer Square pathway on some combination of Main and Washington.

As announced on the Metro Future Blog last week, the agency is proposing a two-way configuration on Columbia Street. Beyond the announcement, Metro has quite a bit of information up about the decision. There are some easily-digestible nuggets also on Metro Future about the pathways not chosen and likewise in this fact sheet, and a report which comprehensively analyses the four final alternatives. To get right to the bottom line, skip to PDF pages 67-69 for a tabular summary of the results. As far as I can tell, the report seems thorough and well written, with reasonable conclusions.

I’ve said my piece on this already, but for posterity: the two-way Main St pathway, pictured above, would have provided by far the best intermodal connectivity and access to the south end of downtown, and been almost immune from ferry traffic congestion, all for the ongoing cost of about a minute in travel time inbound, and three minutes outbound. The pathway would have been significantly more expensive to implement — Main Street completely rebuilt with wider sidewalks, custom paving and bus shelters — but it could have become a beautiful and functional gateway to one of the few truly urban places in Seattle, and provided year-round activation to the often-forlorn Occidental Mall. By contrast, Columbia is nothing more than a pipe for cars.

Unfortunately, the people with the most to gain from a Pioneer Square alignment fought the hardest against it, and when I discussed the alternatives with Metro staff some months ago, it was made clear that whatever the technical merits of this pathway, well-connected anti-bus NIMBYs had foreclosed that possibility; a Columbia pathway was almost a foregone conclusion. The question now is whether Seattle will give Metro the transit priority treatments needed to get buses reliably through the mess at Colman Dock.

53 Replies to “Metro Selects Columbia as Post-Viaduct Pathway”

  1. I think the Columbia alignment is best for most West Seattle trips, especially if SDOT eventually gives Metro its bus lanes, so I’m not sad about this decision.

    But I really wonder what the Pioneer Square NIMBYs want for their neighborhood. The neighborhood is just not working right now. It’s underused and deserted except on Friday and Saturday nights, when it turns into the drinking hotspot for all of Seattle’s least fun drinkers. Just rejecting all change is not going to improve that situation in the least. Do these people actually have a vision of where they want the neighborhood to go, which can be executed without improving transit accessibility, or are they just blindly striking out against the people they feel ride the bus?

    1. They have a vision, and they’re nice, well meaning people. They just happen to be convinced that buses will destroy their neighborhood. They fought to bring the First Hill Streetcar terminal to Occidental, but fought to keep West Seattle buses out. They’re also the reason Metro had to mostly stop using Pioneer Square for diesel coach layover.

      1. As I recall, they’ve also fought higher building heights and more rental housing. Why does anti-bus NIMBYism and anti-renter prejudice seem to go hand-in-hand?

      2. No, actually, they were quite sensible about the upzone. It was preservationists who don’t live there who fought the upzone.

      3. No, actually, they were quite sensible about the upzone. It was preservationists who don’t live there who fought the upzone.

        I have to admit that one of the things I like about living in “fake Ballard” is that, by all accounts, there’s nothing worth preserving. When the day comes that some developer buys out the Walgreens or the gas station north of Market, there will be no historic preservation study, nor any single-family homeowners complaining about their views.

      4. Aleks, it’s just a shame that every multifamily developer building in that neck of the woods has apparently zero taste. :(

      5. Bruce — what you failed to mention in this blog post was the sheer amount of buses that would be coming up and down main street every day. It’s over 500. Every single day.

        Pioneer Square isn’t just already an incredible transit hub — it’s a fantastic WALKABLE neighborhood. And Main street is one of the places that gets a ton of foot traffic — having that amount of buses coming up and down (And in most cases, carrying people through the neighborhood) — is going to make our neighborhood less walkable. I don’t define “activation” as buses driving through the neighborhood. I define it as having more housing so that we have more residents. And better retail, so that people want to come and shop in our neighborhood. And I wish that “NIMBY” wasn’t thrown out so often anytime a neighborhood objects to something, because it has such a strong negative connotation. You can add that label easily, but unless you live or work here, don’t be so quick to jump to judgment. Come down, have a conversation with our neighborhood groups to really talk through the issues, and you’ll realize that what we’re working with is a lot more complex.

        And as for the neighborhood “just not working right now” — why would having tons of buses using Main street as a thoroughfare change that? That’s simplifying the challenges we face to making this neighborhood really successful, and those who have lived there for a while have been working on all of the other issues that can make our neighborhood a better place to live, and to work.

    2. I agree that Pioneer Square needs some help, but it is not as you describe. As someone who spends most of their ‘going out’ time in the area’s bars (have our own mugs at Fuel, I proposed to my wife on stage at the Central, every home match we are at Merchant’s with Barra), usually with my wife and kid, I’m interested by what you classify as Seattle’s ‘least fun drinkers?’

      While a Transit Mall would have helped, and I’m sad it didn’t get chosen, the real answer to the area’s issues is in allowing middle class residents to move in.

      1. Interesting. Every time I go down there on a Friday or Saturday night, I feel overwhelmed by the number of drunk bros stumbling around. I feel like I’ve stepped back in time, into the world’s biggest frat party. Lots of shouting and stumbling, lots of feeling like you could be assaulted at any moment. It’s been some years since I felt the Friday/Saturday night scene there was enjoyable.

      2. Belltown may be worse, but on Friday and Saturday night, there are no winners in this contest.

        When I was young and stupid and went to these neighborhoods on drinking nights, I think the street harrassment for women was probably worse–in quantity and agressiveness–in Pioneer Square. When I’d have a club call a cab for me, I waited next to the bouncer until the cab showed up. In fact, the better bouncers insisted on this. This never felt necessary in Belltown the way it did in Pioneer Square.

        I still like a lot of the same bars in that neighborhood, but Sunday through Thursday only.

      3. Ryan, some of that scene has definitely migrated to Belltown, but the difference is that there are a lot of other people around too. Pioneer Square on Friday and Saturday nights feels to me like it has been entirely abandoned to the drunks. And that’s just another symptom of the larger problem here: Pioneer Square is underused.

    3. If Link had bypassed Rainier Valley, it would have been better for most airport trips. Instead, we built a train which serves a *corridor*, not just two points. The trip to the airport is slower, but the train is much more useful.

      I’m not saying that this was the wrong decision — given the sentiment in Pioneer Square and the cost difference, it was probably the best one. I’m just saying that the speed and reliability of the trip between 3rd/Pike and West Seattle is not the only metric that matters.

      1. The volume of West Seattle travel is far, far higher than the volume of airport travel. The more riders a particular long trip serves, the more I feel speed and reliability of the long trip should be emphasized. That is what is driving my position both in this debate and in the Aurora/Westlake/Dexter ones.

  2. I have a feeling that cranky West Seattle commuters, already eager to complain about the cost of RapidRide and the effect of viaduct demolition on their commute, also would not have been amenable to a guaranteed slower and more expensive transit mall. It’s a nice vision, though.

    Speaking of that, does anyone know if there will be any changes to the roads that the former viaduct buses will travel on to improve travel speeds? (BAT lanes, signal pre-empts, etc.) I’m wondering if living in West Seattle post-viaduct demolition without a car would be a lateral move or much worse than where I am in Green Lake.

  3. If, by some miracle, that $15 million being sought for some of the capital costs of splitting the C/D Line comes through, maybe Metro will be able to convert that white elephant gift from the legislature earmarked for an overly-specific solution to the wrong problem (on-time pick-up dependability for commuters going home to West Seattle) into much more useful solutions to the real problems of travel time, bottlenecks all along the line(s), and lack of off-board infrastructure that would easily make up for the incessant calls for a dependable pick-up time for the trip home. That’s if the language in the legislation doesn’t try to prescribe the solution too specifically.

    Maybe stops can be built in the SODO and Pioneer Square portion of the line (which would benefit the other routes on that path).

    At any rate, the legislature imposing new, more expensive route paths from up on high is the sort of unfunded mandate Metro does *not* need right now.

    1. Being a RapidRide D user, the blow of Columbia being chosen as the preferred ingress/egress was lessened, with the announcement of RapidRide C & D being earmarked for a split.

      I feel as though reliability will go up significantly. West Seattle will get an important destination in SLU and Ballard will regain full access to downtown Seattle. In the end, I think it will be worth the cost, although I don’t know why it wasn’t part of the original RapidRide build out.

      1. I’m usually with you about targeting specific populations with funding for various projects, especially ones that tend to be higher income and privileged… BUT how is money spent on improving on-time dependability for commuters ever a bad thing?

      2. Most of the $15 million will go to buy more buses. The $15 million will do nothing to improve frequency and little to improve travel time on the C Line. I’d much rather see it used for capital investments that reduce travel time, such as the 1st Ave bus lanes, which will help riders on nearly all the other downtown-to-West-Seattle routes.

        Nor is the state offering to cover the extra few million dollars a year in operating costs from splitting the route. Mostly, the cost is the extra platform hours for the two routes where they would now overlap and extend. But it will also increase the number of buses trying to get through downtown during peak time, adding travel time to every other bus stuck behind the additional buses.

  4. I still don’t understand why SDOT and Metro didn’t add ramps from Spokane St to the SODO busway. It would seem that using the busway and transit tunnel would be the fastest way to serve W. Seattle and Downtown…

    1. ‘Cause soon enough the tunnel will be train-only. And I’m not asking anyone to start speculating when, ’cause that debate is TIRED.

      However, I want to ask a related question. Once there are no buses in the DSTT, what becomes of the busway in SODO? How does this asset remain useful?

      1. Actually the busway doesn’t provide much if any advantage over 1st, 4th, or 6th most of the time (an exception being game-day traffic jams maybe?). It will still be on the way for the routes that use it, and these routes are mostly expresses where local SODO access (which the busway isn’t great for) is less important than speed, so maybe they’ll use it as far as Royal Brougham and take that over to 4th.

        If the city hasn’t found a way to extend the SODO bike path down to Spokane Street and Metro is willing to move off this part of the busway I’d use the ROW between Forest and Spokane for that, and try to connect the street network there as much as possible (given that it’s stuck between railroad tracks) to make it more useful.

        Farther north the busway still provides access to a bus base.

      2. It should remain the route for I-5 buses that get on and off at Spokane. Instead of continuing into the tunnel, buses should turn and jog over to 4th.

        Or at least that sounds sensible enough to me.

      3. That’s an interesting question. On the one hand, E-3 is dedicated guideway. On the other hand, 4th is only slightly slower (entirely because there is no TSP) and the Royal Brougham jog takes forever. So using 4th after tunnel closure might well save time. And 4th is closer than E-3 to most places in Sodo where people are trying to go.

        One answer would be to reconfigure the 4th/Royal Brougham and E-3/Royal Brougham intersections to give priority to the jog movement.

      4. Since it is no longer possible to travel through on Royal Brougham between 4th Avenue South and 1st Avenue South, Why not make Royal Brougham transit only between 4th and 6th Avenues? This would reduce the Link Right-of-Way obstructions during stadium events and reduce unauthorized vehicle traffic on E3 as well as reduce the substantial delays to bus traffic to/from E3.

  5. I don’t understand this obsession with transit malls. The constant flow of people past, but never to, all the destinations on 3rd Avenue makes it an inhospitable, unwelcoming, emotionally vacant corridor.

    Transit malls don’t activate the street. They turn it into a waiting room.

      1. From my experience, Portland has managed to keep its transit mall relatively vibrant, but that seems to be more a product of its narrow streets and tiny blocks than the transit itself.

      2. Denver’s transit mall is also a failure, being a magnet for the homeless and drunks. The concentration of low income facilities in the south end of Seattle is what is crippling to this area of the city. Spread them out equitably across the city and metro and you’ll have better outcomes for everyone.

    1. I think 3rd Ave being a dump has to do with it’s streetscape, public order problems (especially outside the Stabdonalds), and a severe case of the general problems associated with downtown Seattle being an open-air homeless shelter. Portland’s transit mall, Market Street in SF are both nice enough places to be, even if they’re not particularly intimate streets.

      It wouldn’t be my platonic ideal of a street, but it would be an improvement over today’s Main Street.

    2. I wish that we had more “inverted couplets”. Portland’s transit mall is a great example of this. I think of it as the street-running equivalent of having a center platform. You get fantastic activation of the blocks between the two streets, simply because it’s possible to use those blocks without having to deal with traffic. (And let’s be honest, 3rd is not a great street to cross.) It also makes transfers much easier. At the extreme, you can end up with a single block which has bus stops on all four sides, so that you can transfer to any bus in the city without crossing a street.

      We actually have an example of this in Seattle — the 4th/5th couplet downtown works this way. I think it’s a shame that we don’t run more buses on this corridor. I particularly don’t understand why we have both the 2nd/4th and 4th/5th couplets, when the latter works so much better.

      I also think there are some other Seattle routes that would be very well suited to being an inverted couplet. For example, I think it would make a lot of sense to change the 12 to use Spring and Madison. (The Central Library is a great example of a block that would benefit from having stops on all four sides.)

  6. With the Viaduct gone, the pressure on Alaskan Way to be a though route parkway will be even greater. At least half of the intersections on Alaskan way between Dearborn and Columbia should be removed and access from pioneer square blocked. It’s just one of the many things that needs to be done to keep Alaskan Way from being gridlocked.

    1. The likely mess on Alaskan will not be caused by the Pioneer Square intersections, but high through-traffic volumes to Interbay and Ballard, and by ferry traffic. When the ferry unloads, the intersections surrounding it are almost guaranteed to fail. When traffic is queuing to turn into the ferry loading area, left-turning cars will consume a ton of road space.

      Moreover, a speedway on the waterfront is antithetical to the idea of a pedestrian-oriented waterfront. If we must have huge of cars on a surface boulevard, they need to be going slow, and the road needs lots of pedestrian crossings. I suspect Alaskan will end up somewhat like the new Mercer in SLU.

      1. That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.

        We’ll spend a large amount of money to beautify the street for the car traffic, but we won’t deal with the fundamental challenges (motorists blocking the box, inadequate turn pockets leading to blocked crosswalks, lack of dedicated bicycle infrastructure) any better than we did with Mercer. At least Mercer has the excuse of being a freeway onramp/offramp – although with the ferry traffic and the tunnel portal, perhaps Alaskan Way is going to be similar.

      2. The ferry unloads now, and traffic disperses to the north, east and south with rather minimal back up. What exactly will be different post viaduct in the future?

      3. Currently, the ferry empties its load across a relatively lightly-used road. Most of the traffic is overhead.

        In the future, Alaskan is where most of the current Viaduct traffic will go. The entire waterfront, and the routes up to downtown from it, become heavily congested. You most likely are not going be able to just dump a ferryload of cars into it anymore.

      4. I question that most of the Viaduct traffic will go to Alaskan Way. The traffic currently coming onto Western will mainly head there (though some will continue onto Western instead). The traffic going through the Battery Street Tunnel will either go to I-5, because it was using 99 to bypass I-5 in the city, or through the city above the cliff at 1st Avenuen if it is heading to West Seattle. There is no way to get from the future end of Aurora to any of the destinations that are useful today on 99 that will use Alaskan Way because it’s not the straight path.

  7. I looked at the report. I can’t help but LAUGH at someone taking forecasts of travel time in 17 years seriously down to the tenths of minutes! It’s also not clear how the travel times differ during the day, or how much deviation from that average figure a single bus would have or a single day would have. All it takes is one traffic light timing change and using this corridor would cost travel time, not save time. It would appear that it’s terribly easy to “fix” assumptions in those travel time estimates to demonstrate a time savings. When will the public demand that Metro quit producing reports that describe accuracy in such unreasonable terms?

  8. My biggest gripe with the C and D Lines is that just about all trips miss south downtown and the International District. Someone at 4th & Jackson would have to head uptown first and then transfer if they wanted to get to Ballard without relying on a 15/18X. This looked like Metro’s best opportunity to solve it, but I can’t say I’m surprised.

  9. My problem with Columbia St is that every block from 3rd to Alaskan Way is broken up by either a Parking Garage entrance, an active loading dock or an alley. I don’t see any place to put a bus stop that can handle more than 1 60′ coach.

    So no matter what they do with the lanes, there’s always going to be a delay as each files in one at a time to the stop.

    Maybe moving the southbound stop south of Second street would be slightly better. The loading zone there isn’t used as much as the garage and alley at the current Columbia St stop.

    1. The 2nd & Columbia stop would function just fine with more than one coach… IF Metro didn’t cave to the damn parking lot owner there.

  10. Once the Viaduct is gone it will be apparent that it supported a lot of transit. This surface street option is a step backwards. The only upside is that it will add support for a second transit tunnel serving W. Seattle and Ballard.

    1. The only upside is that it will add support for a second transit tunnel serving W. Seattle and Ballard.

      Never happening without the Seattle Subway, and I’m not sure if that’s in the cards.

    2. A tunnel serving West Seattle and northwest Seattle? Sounds really familiar. Too bad it doesn’t serve downtown in-between.

      1. Couldn’t we just kick the cars out, lay tracks, and dig a station box or two? That would be so much more useful.

  11. Looking this over demonstrates a real problem with community engagement…

    Yeah, 64% of survey respondents prefer the Columbia option. However, we also know that transit riders, when given the choice, would prefer one-seat rides into Downtown, but that doesn’t make for the most efficient system nor does it well serve the folks most dependent upon transit.

    And their own analysis of the data demonstrates that riders mostly chose the option that most closely reflects their current bus pathway. Again, we know that riders are generally averse to change, even when that change might ultimately benefit them.

  12. It’s a pretty basic set of improvements. There’s nothing outlandish here at all – Reserved or BAT lanes for the entire area, properly sited bus stops, and an implied but not stated ped overpass at the dock.

    Some of this work falls under WSDOT’s umbrella – the bus lane on the SR99 offramp, perhaps some infrastructure around their ferry terminal – but most of it is on SDOT’s back. And some of that (adding BAT lanes to an already-huge Alaskan Way) is not going to be either cheap or popular.

    No mention of anything like TSP, these are all old-school improvements.

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