SPU Layover

Two small but significant trolleybus improvements are in the works for Queen Anne, both of them painfully obvious time- and money-saving optimizations to the overhead wire network that should probably have been built decades ago, but which I am overjoyed are finally happening. (“Better late than never” is the watchword of the STB Metro beat).

Under construction now is inbound trolleybus wire on Denny Way for Routes 1, 2, and 13. This is part of an SDOT-funded project, called the Uptown-Belltown Transit Improvement Project, which I’ve covered from its incipience, and which also brought us the new bus lane on Broad St. The new trolleybus wire will allow inbound trolley coaches to use Denny, just like diesel coaches have done for decades, and will save riders about two minutes per inbound trip. Construction is estimated to wrap up in late April, followed by a period of testing before Metro coaches switch to using the wire in-service. The eastbound Denny & Warren stop will be moved a block east, and upgraded with improved facilities.

The estimated cost of the project (which will likely change somewhat as construction goes on) is around $1.5 million. It’s worth pausing to mull his number for a moment: $1.5 million, for two minutes per day saved by thousands of riders from Queen Anne and Uptown, for the foreseeable future. The various Ballard rail options differ in travel times by about eight minutes per direction and in cost by billions of dollars. Obviously this comparison is somewhat apples to oranges: any of those alignments would serve far more people per day, and all aspire to provide a Rapid Transit level of service, which, if successful, provides more benefit per rider. Nevertheless, this frames a crucial point: any remotely sensible bus improvement on a well-used route will be amazingly cost-effective.

The final part of this project, a traffic study to evaluate whether outbound coaches could use a bus-only signal at 3rd & Denny, is ongoing.

More after the jump.

On the other side of the hill, Metro is designing a new trolleybus layover bay near Seattle Pacific University, on the Route 13 terminal loop. This additional layover bay will allow Routes 3 & 4 to be extended from their current vestigial terminal loops in East and North Queen Anne to Seattle Pacific University, at minimal (but not quite zero) operational cost. SPU is a transfer point when travelling between Queen Anne and the U-District, and a ridership center in its own right. SPU lost its primary downtown route in the 2012 restructure, and extending frequent service from the top of Queen Anne to SPU is a boon not just for that area, but for overall network connectivity and comprehensibility.

Metro has funds for both design and construction of the new layover bay; I don’t have a cost estimate, but construction is expected to happen next year. I commend Metro management for funding this project, even in the face of parlous and debilitating uncertainty over future levels of available revenue.

45 Replies to “SDOT and Metro Improve Queen Anne Trolleybus Routes”

  1. Great News. Saving 2 minutes per inbound trip for nearly 5 million annual riders has a payback of about 1 year at $15/hr and will increase ridership no doubt.
    More, More, More of this.

  2. Isn’t the 3 going to SPU the proposal that also exists in the “if Metro’s budget ship springs a big leak” plan, minus the discontinuation of the 4? If so, I like that. Do you know if Metro is (still?) planning on having the 3 (and 4) meet up, schedule-wise, with the 32?

    1. Under any scenario that I’ve seen or heard of, the combined 3+4 and 31+32 would still have 15 minute headways (except Sat-Sun evenings) where they meet at SPU, which is below the point where it makes sense to try to time the transfer.

      Timing transfers in the evenings would be nice, but realistically is a micro-optimization that might not be worth the effort given the many other things Metro needs to fix.

      1. How much effort is actually required though? We’re talking about shuffling schedules a few minutes here or there, not running buses for more hours.

      2. “Shuffling schedules a few minutes” is really, surprisingly hard. There are knock-on effects all over the network.

      3. “Shuffling schedules by a few minutes” to minimize waiting is a class case of a constraint-optimization problem, which something that computers in the 21st century are quite good it. Rather than somebody in a room manually shifting schedules for route x forward or back a few minutes and calculating the effects, stuff like this should be nothing more than the punch of a button.

        That said, given the large number of connections with abysmal timings (for example, nearly all local buses at Eastgate P&R are completely out of sync with the 554), it is pretty obvious that Metro does not do this and, instead, simply picks timetables out of a hat. Sometimes, it almost seems like Metro is intentionally scheduling coverage routes to have long connect times with their associated trunk routes in a bid to create a self-fulfilling prophecy where they can cut the route in the future due to low ridership and save money.

      4. If it were a matter of simple optimization for existing behavior, we could have computers plan the network as well. We know (roughly) all of the trips people are trying to take, the streets capable of handling buses, and the available service hours.

        But we are designing things for weird imperfect humans in a system that is ultimately controlled through politics. It may be that one of the just two riders who have to wait 20 minutes as a result of your computer-generated schedule is Joanna Cullen, who can create enough pain for you on the King County Council that you’d rather have 10 other riders wait 5 minutes. It could be that all of the few riders you are forcing to wait longer are poor, or old, and the optics would be terrible. This is why human judgment ultimately has to evaluate every facet of any proposed changes to the schedule, whether a human or a computer originally makes them. And applying that human judgment, because of the complexity of the system, is time-consuming and has no shortcuts.

        I encourage you to complain to Metro about any and all poor transfers on routes with headway >15 minutes. Chances are that schedule was written with some other transfer in mind, which was likely the most important one when it was written, but might not be today. The current Eastside network is mostly a transfer-based network and every route has many transfers which need to be considered.

      5. I would not hand the scheduling over to computers. Computers get it wrong, in part because the input is garbage. How many Metro routes actually follow their schedule, within a tolerance of one minute at each timepoint, all day?

        Schedulers don’t just sit in a room and do math. Timing a route involves someone actually driving it, and then collecting data on route performance so the schedule can be tweaked over time. Metro needs more schedulers, not more computers.

      6. Right, so with either hand scheduling or computer scheduling, you need more and better data. If that data is reliable, the computers can run through a whole lot more scenarios. If the data is unreliable, the hand scheduling is also unreliable.

        So, metro needs more schedulers *and* more computes.

      7. Metro’s on-time percentage, at least on heavily traveled routes, is so abysmal as to make any effort at optimizing transfers a complete waste of labor. The scheduled times are garbage data.

        While there are some obvious exceptions, like buses with origins at Link stations, we generally need to fix schedule reliability before even attempting to time transfers.

  3. Did Metro ever rewire the bottom of the Counterbalance northbound to get rid of that dead zone at QA Ave and Roy? If not, there’s another tiny project 3 decades overdue.

    1. If we’re listing projects, let me mention again the Olive Way Freeway Station. I don’t have a link yet, but it would pay for itself within ten years, even ignoring the extra service it’d allow.

      1. Here is the link (I assume): https://seattletransitblog.wpcomstaging.com/2012/09/28/olive-way-freeway-station/

        A bit off topic, but one of the Seattle city councilmembers (I think it was Rasmussen) said he had reservations about extending the streetcar. I think it is about $100 million dollars. He said he likes the project, but isn’t sure whether we could get a lot more for the money. I agree. This is one example. I wonder how many there are, and what they would cost. Putting aside whether Seattle or Metro (or Sound Transit) should pay for it, I think it would be great to have a list of relatively small projects (those under $100 million) that might be a better value than another street car. Off the top of my head I’m thinking of a bus stop on Aurora above Fremont (to server Rapid Ride), a bridge over I-5 at Northgate and a Link station at 130th NE. Even a starter Tram, from the Capitol Hill station to the Cascade neighborhood could probably be done for less than $100 million.

      2. Excellent. This is just seat of the pants political analysis, but I think these types of changes would prove to be really popular. There are a lot of people who think we should “focus on the little stuff”. I personally want us to do the little stuff and the big stuff, but I agree that there are a bunch of relatively cheap things we can do that would make a huge difference.

      3. Add capacitor storage units for the substations to the list. I don’t think they are that expensive, and several companies make them now. The savings in subway / metro operations have been significant.

        “Ultracapacitor energy storage offers metro operators 20% savings”

        The actual cost savings depends on the hit that Metro takes for having an impact-style load to the grid. Residential customers don’t see this, but any commercial customer will see a “demand charge” for their power consumption. For impact loading, such as the trolley buses have (the power feed has zero load for 10 minutes or so, then full load for several minutes) this charge can be several times the actual power consumption.

        These capacitor systems help in being able to spread the electrical load over a period of time, so that the load on the grid doesn’t represent such a large impact when the trolley hits that section of the grid.

        Yes, I know the new trolleys will have on board energy storage, but in general the more storage capacity the better when it comes to reducing these expenses.

    2. All dead-zones will be solved when the new fleet of trolleys starts going into service. They’ll have on board batteries with seamless off-wire capability, so they’ll fly straight through the dead spots.

      And not having to worry about dead spots so much will make building and maintaining the trolley wire much easier.

  4. Thanks, Bruce. A couple of questions, concerning obvious improvements:

    1. Am I the only one that finds it infuriating that First Avenue has trolleywire over it the entire length of the Downtown Cental Business District, but hardly any bus service of any kind?

    I seem to remember that in the past, the West Queen Anne trolley routes used First all the way to Seattle Center. It seems to me that putting this service back to First would really help the problem of getting buses from Third to First in the Denny area.

    And also give a major Downtown arterial the transit service it never should have lost. Can’t believe that the Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market business interests haven’t raised the Hell about this that’s usually saved for threats to parking.

    The street rail connector will help considerably. But with the street already wired for buses, and presumably the substations in place, what’s the harm in adding a couple of blocks of wire now, and restoring trolleybus service to First?

    2. For about forty years, ever since the major overhaul of trolley overhead decades ago, every trolley driver on routes 1, 2, and 13 has cursed the substation breaker, abbreviated “dead spot” on the upbound wire on one of transit’s two steepest and most-used hills.

    On a trolleybus, every one of these breakers creates a short space of unpowered wire. Every switch has this condition on one wire- the suitcase- handle carrying current of one wire over another is called a “bridge. Not advisable to stop with trolley shoe under one of these bridges, especially on flat level ground.

    On the Counterbalance, downhill there’s no problem. Gravity power works just fine. But northbound, the driver of a bus with a standing load must come off the power at the exact point where max power is needed. All Atlantic Base drivers learn to do this. Every trolleydriver thinks whoever designed this wire should have to drive it every rush hour.

    This is probably transit’s worst and longest-lasting and easiest to fix long-term embarrassment. Message to KC Metro: while your mind is on Queen Anne, just take a weekend and fix the damned thing!

    Mark Dublin

    1. What, and miss all the fun of ‘crash, boom, bang’ when the pole reenergizes on live wire with the drivers foot still demanding more from the power pedal?

      1. Thanks, Mic, for a reasonably accurate description of powering through dead wire. Only mistake is that only time you’d get “Boom” is if some marching band member’s bass drum got loose and rolled into a jazz musician’s bass viol.

        For appropriate sound effect, you need to visit online glossary of printed sound effects by the late, and madly-missed by transit people, Mad magazine cartoonist Don Martin. My guess would be something like “FaKRAK bloop bloop bloop Gu- BLURCH zooooOOOOOWWW” (as power suddenly comes back and chopper kicks back in.)

        Also bus camera footage will reflect passengers reacting by curling up their wingtip-shod feet, and rolling their tongues out like party-favor paper whistles.

        RIP, Don. Or as your spirit would undoubtedly say: “RIPFFFFFFF!”

        Mark Dublin

    2. Mark, two points about 1st:

      1) There is no wire on 1st north of Lenora, so you can’t use it all the way through Belltown.

      2) The reason no scheduled service operates on 1st anymore is reliability. It’s a problem in both directions, but especially southbound on game days, on Friday and Saturday nights, or when there is a traffic problem on the southbound viaduct. The diesel service that formerly operated all the way down 1st could suffer 20- or 30-minute delays on a fairly routine basis. Even the short bit of 1st used by the former 10/12 through route was occasionally a problem. Meanwhile SDOT and Metro have made improvements to 3rd (skip stops, peak-hour car restrictions, signal cycles) which mean that 3rd is pretty reliable even at the worst of times.

      Honestly, if it weren’t for that issue I would be a big fan of 1st as a transit corridor. But it’s resisted all efforts to fix it.

      1. See, here comes David with well-reasoned pins to burst my balloons and a whole 60 seconds before I even posted. :)

      2. David, I think you’ll notice that I did recommend re-wiring the whole length of First through Belltown- more than “a couple” of blocks, but not by much. I’m pretty sure wire was there for the Brills and the Pullmans when I first saw Seattle in fall 1974.

        As to congestion on First, I certainly don’t think through buses from the south and southwest should be forced into game-night unofficial parking AKA First Avenue south of Jackson.

        But adding wire on either Yesler or James between Third and First would take care of the worst of sports related blockage. Another embarrassment, or possibly airborne conceptual art, is a stretch of wire from First to either Columbia or Cherry, forget which, ending on James just short of Third.

        You see, the Downtown Seattle Project thirty years ago planned for a trolley stop at First and Marion, and adding wire to carry ferry passengers up to the court-house. Another age-old piece of laziness that the system should either complete, or fill out an application with the Seattle Arts Commission for an unregistered public art item. Likely that resulting comment will result in using it for transit instead.

        Another de-congestion measure that the proposed streetcar line will likely require: use street lanes for intended purpose rather than parking, at least at rush hour and on game nights.

        Historic point to also keep in mind: during Tunnel construction, necessity of moving all trolleybus service down to First created a lot of public bad feeling due to general atmosphere of First after dark. I’m no fan of gentrification, and can think of some other land uses I’d rather see.

        But transit-wise….it’s not your father’s First Avenue. Though judging from the urban activity in old black and white pictures, wouldn’t mind our grandfathers’.


      3. It’s not just 1st “south of Jackson” that turns into a parking lot on game nights. Frequently, it’s much of the CBD portion of the street, sometimes as far north as University or Seneca.

        The only way to solve the problem for good would be dedicated transit lanes for the entire length of First. Those may be coming as part of the Center City Connector project, but only for streetcars. Given that they will be in the center, those lanes could only be used for buses if they make no stops along 1st. (I will be posting later about one possible way in which such a route could actually be useful, to untangle the First Hill knot, but it won’t work for corridor service.) I think it became clear during the tunnel project that there is no way dedicated lanes for buses alone will ever come to 1st.

      4. I’ve thought about this issue a lot. In other cities, you have many downtown streets with bus service. The biggest difference between Seattle and those other cities is the terrain. It’s not really reasonable to ask people to transfer between a 1st Avenue bus and a 3rd Avenue bus. It works in the north end, but what if you want to go from Georgetown to Harborview? Are you supposed to backtrack to Pike/Pine to avoid having to walk up the hill?

        The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most east-west buses don’t make it as far west as 1st, let alone the waterfront. So even when there should be an obvious and level transfer (e.g. 1st/Pike, 1st/Spring, 1st/James), there isn’t.

        Another big difference is the lack of a transit spine. If you’re going from West Seattle to Greenwood, say, then being able to exit the C and board the 5 at the same 3rd Ave stop is very convenient. In a city with a better subway system, this role wouldn’t be as important; most people would be entering and exiting downtown by rail, with easy connections at rail stations.

        I think the argument for rerouting transit service away from 3rd is strongest where there are already rail connections (or where they will soon exist). For example, I think David’s proposal to move the 7 to Boren is very sensible, given that Link already allows you to get from Rainier Valley to 3rd Ave (underground). Similarly, if Ballard Link contains stops in Fremont and Upper/Lower Queen Anne, I think you could make an argument for rerouting some subset of the 1/2/3/4/13/D to 1st Ave (provided you could fix the reliability issues).

    3. 1st Ave trolley wire: I’ll be darned, it does. I never remembered seeing it but looking at Bing’s street-level clearly shows it. Knowing absolutely zilch about transit planning except what I’d like to see (isn’t that what we all do?), I think that if the 3 and 4 will both continue to exist, one of them should go via 1st and the other via 3rd. The schedule would get too complicated and confusing to alternate them, where every other trip goes via the other route, so the 3 could go via “3”rd and the 4 could go via 1st (4 minus 3). Or something. I’m sure that asking why front-door service to the waterfront and various other attractions along 1st would be a whole other long discussion.

    4. First Ave Wire was used for the former connection between the 10 and 12. This was terrible as buses had to wait 5 light cycles sometimes to turn off of Pine onto First Ave.

      NB Jackson-Marion/Pike/Virginia/Lenora – Deadheading buses / repositioning buses
      NB Broad-Denny – rts 1/2/13

      SB Denny – Broad – rts 1/13/36
      SB Lenora? – Virginia – deadhead loop
      SB Madison-Marion – rt 12 turn-loop

      There used to be wire from 1st up Yesler (to James IIRC) as well as up Cherry, while the wire is still there, it is disconnected from the system …

      1. Current and former maps of the trolleybus wire are available at the SDOT website!


        Personally, I keep looking at those maps and going “Why haven’t they wired 23rd Avenue from John St. to Jefferson St.? And why does the trolley wire take that weird route through Judkins Park?” The 48 should be a trolleybus route. Most of the other “15 minutes all day” services south of the Ship Canal are, and over half of the route already has wire. I realize it’s a bit under 2 miles of new wire, but with the removal of the complicated diversion around Judkins Park, it’s not that much new copper. Someone should be able to do estimates of the fuel savings and see how quick the payback would be.

      2. The project is on the city’s radar. The 23rd Ave renovation will put in poles that are compatible with trolley wire. And the city understands how natural a gap it is.

        I hope that if Metro ever does succeed in restructuring the 4 out of existence it promptly takes down that Judkins Park wire. Routing any bus (trolley or diesel) through that neighborhood just makes no sense.

      3. Well I’ll be. I never knew the 15 and 18 were electrified AND were signed as such through West Seattle.

        Also interesting that between 1963 and 2005, most of the wires north of the Ship Canal were removed, but the 44 wire was added. Wonder what the reasoning behind that was.

      4. The trolleybus wire into West Seattle ran over the old West Seattle Bridge, which back then was a slow enough road for trolleybuses.

  5. Should also have been a “2.” at change of subject. Something that by transit rules, should have taken forty years to correct. Sorry for being “pushy”.


  6. If the 3 and 4 went to SPU they’d simply join up with the 13 at Queen Anne Ave, no funny business (like the 4 heading south down Queen Anne Ave), right?

  7. It should be noted that the bus lane on Broad still isn’t doing anything, thanks mostly to SDOT’s policy of imagining Niagara traffic flows on arterials where no such traffic exists.

    I have yet be on a bus that turned left from 3rd and didn’t immediately miss the light at 2nd. It just doesn’t happen. And SDOT, of course, keeps that light red for well over a minute, although this part of 2nd hosts a traffic trickle at even the height of rush hour.

    And when Broad/1st/Denny traffic truly grinds to a halt, the bus can’t reach its lane anyway if the cars that share its left turn from 3rd are unable to clear.

    Can’t the people with the paint ever talk to the people with signal-box keys?

    1. “I have yet be on a bus that turned left from 3rd and didn’t immediately miss the light at 2nd. It just doesn’t happen.”

      In a year of driving RapidRide D through this portion of the route, I have caught the green at 2nd but very few times – probably less than a dozen. Given that my NB trip is typically packed to the gills, that’s roughly 60-80 people a day who’d like that minute back.

      1. After thinking about this a bit more, I *think* this signal is actually better than it used to be, but my experience is within a very narrow time band. If d.p. is seeing this issue as often as he says, then I am probably getting some priority during the beginning of the afternoon rush hour when traffic is still pretty light.

        Either way, I DO end up stopping at that red light almost every day. But I’m hedging on how much time I spend stopped there.

      2. There was one Friday afternoon commute, before RapidRide (not that that makes a difference), where I was on a 15 Express that waited almost 20 minutes to be able to turn left from 3rd and the subsequent right onto 1st. It wasn’t raining and there weren’t any accidents, it was the right turn at 1st not syncing up with the light at 1st/Denny, so 1st would fill up from Denny to Broad by the time Broad had the green light, just a weird day I guess.

        While I never experienced anything that bad again, there were days where the 3rd->1st slog would take upwards of 5 minutes. So an unnecessary 1 minute delay sucks, but it definitely seems like something is working better for the bus with the new configuration.

  8. I remember the days I would wait in Lower Queen Anne for the but to take me to Ballard. I would ask people how long they have been waiting and they would say a long time because there is a game in SODO. I was shocked that a bus system would work that way. Well they fixed it and there is no more waiting for a game to get over to get from Lower Queen Anne to Ballard. If you want first street service then get on board with the light rail from West Seattle to Ballard project because that is the only way it is going to became reality. I am glad you asked the question sometimes it is hard to know the full details of the reasoning because Metro keeps as much secrete because they always are afraid they might get into some legal difficulties. (another triage – Metro call center – If people ask too many questions or feel like the system is not working JUST hangup on them. So always ask for the operators name and tell them you my be recording them.)

  9. Something that Gordon Werner mentioned in the linked previous post (from 2012) strikes me as very true. There is that enormous concentration of BIG units between Elliott and 2nd Avenue between Denny and Battery with no transit serving it. Now that transit service has been concentrated on Third Avenue, the folks in the buildings between Elliott and Western have to walk four blocks to service with a hill between Western and First at almost every street.

    The Queen Anne Avenue ETB’s used to continue south of First to the Market area before turning east, but the wire is gone now. If the Downtown Connector is built there is some possibility that tracks will run up First Avenue to Lower Queen Anne, but surely not for ten years at the soonest.

    Something needs to be done now to serve this area better and I have a suggestion. The 120 is a frequent service line whose first and last stops are just north of Virginia on Third Avenue. It looks like it’s not through-routed with any north end bus; the purple line on the downtown frequent service map just appears at Bell Street.

    The grade down to Western from First on Bell isn’t very steep nor is the grade up on Battery. Extending the 120 west on Bell/Battery to Elliott/Western and north on the couplet to Broad would give some frequent service to a group of people who are clearly “urbanists” for probably one bus on the route. I think it could lay-over at the south end of the Spaghetti Factory on Elliott.

    Let the sarcasm about my stupidity from unowho begin.

    1. I agree 100% that the area needs service, but unfortunately it’s very hard to serve. The Bell/Battery couplet is too steep for buses. Elliott and Western can’t be used because they force traffic either to and from the viaduct or into areas where buses can’t navigate. My proposal (see route 34) is to use Broad, which buses can use, for a route that connects SLU, Seattle Center, the waterfront (new Alaskan Way), and Pioneer Square. This is not ideal as it requires a transfer to reach Real Downtown, but at least it would provide a frequent way up the hill.

      That said, it might not be bad to slightly change the 120 terminal loop to provide a single publicly accessible stop on 1st.

      1. It looks like the 99 loops exactly where I was thinking and goes up Wall to First. Of course, it’s hardly rapid transit, sticking to First Avenue all the way and running only at the peak hours, but at least it does provide a little service to the area. Maybe the easiest thing to do is just to make it a Frequent Service route and let folks from Belltown walk up from First Avenue downtown. They used to do that when the 15/18 went that way.

        I’d be fine with using Wall instead of Battery to both climb and descend the hill with an extension of the 120. To make it useful, though, it has to have more stops than the 99 does in its loop. I realize that space is tight in that neighborhood.

        I like your idea of an access to Alaskan Way from Seattle Center. It’s too far to walk for most people and there’s no easy way to travel between them now. But again, that’s in the future, and “West Belltown” needs service now.

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