About two years ago, I wrote a post comparing the speed and reliability of two transit pathways between downtown Seattle and Harborview Medical Center, James St and Yesler Way, using data from the Metro routes that currently travel on those corridors. That data showed what anyone who’d ridden those buses already knew: the buses on James St, which directly serve Harborview, are packed to overflowing, but crippled by appalling slowness and unreliability for much of the day, partly from being so busy, but primarily from all the cars on James St queuing to access I-5. By contrast, buses on Yesler run fast and like clockwork, partly because they’re less used, but crucially because Yesler is a very lightly-trafficked arterial with no direct highway connections.
Harborview and the surrounding area, which includes numerous other medical facilities, and the Yesler Terrace housing project (soon to be rebuilt at much higher density), comprise a major ridership center just beyond the periphery of downtown, cut off by a huge hill and a freeway. Better connecting that area to downtown should be a priority for Metro and the City of Seattle, and the combination of James’s incurable congestion, and Yesler’s almost equal directness and near-total lack of congestion, suggest that moving trolleybus service from James to Yesler is the smart way to do so.
Moving the James St trolleybus service entails building new trolleybus wire on streets that have never had it previously, as well as operating buses on a couple of short sections of 8th and 9th that have not previously had any regular Metro service, so implementation will require significant study and civil engineering work. This being Seattle, getting anything built will be a multi-year process, but, happily, this process has at last begun: in last year’s budget, the city allocated $150,000 for a study of transit service on Yesler, which will include a conceptual design for trolleybus overhead wire, expected to be complete by the end of the year. No funding is available for engineering or construction, but SDOT hopes the conceptual design will better equip the city to pursue more funding.
More after the jump.
One of the problems identified in previous studies of adding trolleybus wire to Yesler is the awkwardly-named “Yesler Way over 4th Ave Bridge”, a Victorian-era bridge in need of major work to bring it up to modern structural standards. SDOT has, for some time, been studying this bridge with a view to replacement or rehabilitation, and I’ve previously been assured that any bridge design will include “drop-in” support for trolleybus overhead supports. This bridge rehabilitation project has now been fully funded by a combination of Bridging the Gap and federal grants, with construction to begin in the summer of 2015. The funding of this bridge project eliminates a source of uncertainty and cost from the transit project.
Trolleybus service on Yesler is the ultimate and primary goal, but there’s no reason why service on this corridor can’t also be improved with diesel bus service, both before and after the trolley overhead is built.
Route 40, uniquely among all-day Seattle routes, today runs out-out-service (deadheading) between Pioneer Square and Metro’s Central Base in SODO for its southern layover, serving no passengers south of Main St. What if, instead, the 40 operated in-service up Yesler to a layover on First Hill? Done right, this might cost no more than laying over in SODO, and serve far more people. I first heard this idea at RapidRide C/D Metro open houses in 2012, but the idea was subsequently scrapped due to lack of suitable layover on First Hill. There’s some recent good news here, though.
Thanks to the recent passage of a new Veterans and Human Services Levy, the King County Juvenile Detention Facility, at 12th & Spruce, will be rebuilt by 2018, and the new facility will be designed to include bus layover. There also a possibility that nearby on-street bus layover will provided in the interim, as a way to mitigate parking impacts during construction. These layovers could be used to permanently extend Route 40 to First Hill, starting as soon as the interim layover becomes available.
Unfortunately, Metro staff are not considering routing the 40 through Harborview itself:
The primary objective is to serve the new facility (using the ultimate layover location) with the most direct routing alignment possible, with the least delay– to incur no additional cost over and above current Route 40 operations, which is already a very long route that encounters several areas of congestion[.] Routing may follow Yesler (eastbound) to 12th Ave. or 14th Ave. (northbound). […] Alternative routing, such as via 9th and Jefferson (Harborview) is not under consideration due to the additional cost of serving that congested area.
In the short term, given Metro’s dire financial uncertainty, I can understand the desire to avoid adding a bus to the schedule to serve Harborview, and so a Yesler-only routing perhaps makes sense. In the longer-term, though, Metro should bite the bullet and figure out how to get buses through Harborview in a tolerably fast and reliable way, and then pay the small additional service cost to get Route 40 right into Harborview via the future Yesler trolleybus alignment. Demand for this transit connection is overwhelming, and if Metro’s finances look up, converting deadhead service hours into riders is precisely the kind of customer-focused improvement Metro should make wherever possible.