Map of ideas described in post
Map by Oran

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.

Yesler Way over 4th Ave Bridge
Yesler Way over 4th Ave

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.

60 Replies to “Better Connecting Harborview and Downtown”

    1. If the wire Bruce describes were completed, there could be an infrequent First Hill-downtown circulator using trolleys and running along Seneca and 9th. It would satisfy those critics as well as those at Horizon House. Not saying that’s the best use of service hours, but if buying critics off can get us better service for everyone else, then…

      1. Just me being a smart ass again. The Yesler Wire route offered a lot in mobility for First Hill, and congestion relief for the left turn from 9th to James in the PM peak (one vehicle per green some days). Some argued it was a better alternative to building FHSC, but that’s another debate gone stale.
        You’ve got my vote Bruce.

      2. Maybe you could also solve this problem by running the 40 via 8th Ave (under the Convention Center), then Seneca, 9th, Jefferson? That would give First Hill proper a huge service boost too.

      3. I’d really like to see how 8th Ave could be used by transit service and optimized to give transit service a congestion free route between SLU, Denny Triangle, and First Hill.

      4. If trolley wires would fit on 8th Ave. under the Convention Center, the 2 Madrona could use the Pine/Pike couplet instead of the Spring/Seneca. Running the 40 from Northgate>Ballard>Fremont>Downtown>First Hill seems like an invitation for unreliable service.

      5. +1 to Zach. Also running service on 8th and 9th avenue would have the benefit of mitigating some of the concerns about route 2 restructures.

      6. The 60 will most likely move to 12th eventually, because that’s a straight shot from Beacon Hill and an underserved corridor with no current service. Part of the reason for putting the 60 on 9th will go away with the First Hill Streetcar, and it was also a decision made over a decade ago that Metro might not have made today. However, I don’t expect it to change right with the streetcar, but with Link.

      7. The issue with using the 8th street underpass through the convention center to fix the 2, is that it bypasses any Link transfers.

        Otherwise it’s a woefully underused path.

  1. I’m happy to see the possibility of connecting the northwest quadrant of the city to First Hill, even if it’s the accidental result of repurposing deadhead hours more effectively. Not only would the all-day connectivity be a welcome change, but it would fill a large gap in the First Hill peak network, which currently only has buses from Jackson Park/Lake City/Wedgwood/Green Lake (64), Federal Way/Star Lake/Kent-Des Moines/Tukwila (193), Mercer Island/Eastgate/Issaquah Highlands (211), and Shoreline/Northgate (303). Adding the 40 would give first-ever connectivity between South Lake Union and First Hill and eliminate the tedious 3/4 transfer for commuters from Fremont, Ballard, and Crown Hill.

    Using Yesler compared to James is a no-brainer, but a Yesler-14th-Spruce-12th routing is unfortunate on many levels. For the sake of saving 5 (admittedly congested) blocks of travel, it misses not only Harborview but also SeattleU and both Swedish campuses (First Hill and Cherry Hill). The Justice Center is one of the few places that the 14th/Washington streetcar station will decently serve, and it would be unfortunate to double up on serving it while missing out on a potentially much larger ridership draw.

    A Yesler/8th/9th/Jefferson routing would serve Yesler Terrace, Harborview, Swedish First Hill, SeattleU, and Swedish Cherry Hill, and it could use plentiful layover space that already exists, either at 18th/Jefferson (only used during peak) and 21st/James (only used off-peak). It would be a shame to see the 40 come so close to such major job centers but fall just 5 blocks short.

  2. I am riding the 40 right now into Ballard and I am trying to imagine it going to yesler. It seems like a really long ride….

    Maybe we could get some dedicated transit lanes (peak only?) in the most congested areas to boost the speed and reduce the service hour cost…

    Holman, Leary and Westlake seem to have some lanes to spare…

    I rarely ride the 40 past Ballard though. Where are the most congested areas?

    1. Particular problems on the 40, from south to north:

      – 3rd through Belltown. SDOT work on 3rd should help a bit with this, but I’d suggest using more of Westlake instead via Virginia/Stewart.
      – Westlake through SLU (PM peak only). Even though this street was recently redesigned I think it is going to have to be redone sometime in the future.
      – Fremont Bridge and 35th/Fremont.
      – 15th/Leary southbound. Bridge openings kill the right lane but can also sometimes cause problems in the left lane.
      – Not congestion, but extreme slowness through Ballard. A series of poorly timed lights and poorly spaced stops.
      – Entire length of route along N 105th/Northgate Way. This is the hardest of the bunch to fix and negatively affects reliability of the whole route southbound.

      1. I wonder if the 40 could avoid the 105th/Northgate Way mess by going via Aurora and 100th. I see a few problems with this:

        1) Probably get fewer riders along that section. But I’m guessing that the difference wouldn’t be that much. You would still go to NSCC and Northgate. Compared to the overall ridership, I think the difference is minimal.

        2) It would require a right, then a left on Aurora. This means the bus would have to move to the far lane after turning. There are lights at both intersections, though, so I don’t see that much of a problem.

        3) Trading one traffic problem with another (on Aurora). Since the bus has to make a left turn, it wouldn’t be able to use the bus lane. But this slowness is only for five blocks.

        4) It would require a left from College Way to 100th (when heading towards Ballard). There is no light here, so I don’t know how easy this is. But there is a turn lane, and only one lane going the other direction, so this might not be much of a problem. Worse case scenario the city adds a light — or maybe a four way stop.

        5) 100th is a residential street. There are traffic circles there. This might be the biggest issue.

      2. I don’t think its a good idea to skip all of the ridership you pick up from taking the route through 105th.

        If it were though, 90th/92nd would be much more direct than 100th and has better crossings of nearly every problem spot you mention (and only one traffic circle that would need to be removed).

        The main problems would be A) losing stops near the college entrance and B) the weird turn on/off of Holman ave.

        100th ave would make a much better green street actually, especially if the pedestrian bridge is built for the Northgate Station.

      3. Easiest way to fix the north end of the 40 is to swap terminals with RapidRide D.

        The D line is already a pathetic joke of unreliability, infrequency, and detours. What’s one more?

      4. @Kyle so wait.. you want to cut out the College and Northgate Transfer Center? You eliminate a pretty big chunk of the north end ridership right there…

      5. @Charles — Are you talking about going 90th from Holman road? That would certainly be faster, but I see a few problems with that:

        1) Substantial loss of ridership (much bigger in my estimation than what I proposed).
        2) 90th is a residential street from Holman to Aurora.
        3) The Holman Road/90th intersection you mentioned.

        Is Holman Road the part that is so congested? I know that intersection at Holman and Greenwood is a problem, but other than that, I think it moves pretty well (but I could be wrong). My guess is that you would lose a lot of riders that way (although perhaps still not a high percentage).

        Which gets to the other point — are there really that many riders on 105th east on Aurora, as well as that little piece of Meridian? I would think that there are a lot more riders on the rest of it (between Greenwood and Aurora, inclusive). Plus 100th and Aurora is a decent stop (so you might gain back a few).

        Another alternative would be to go via Aurora, then 90th/92nd (which may have been what you proposed). I considered it, and it might work, but I see a couple disadvantages to that, over 100th:

        1) As you said, it skips the heart of NSCC (although I don’t think this is that much of a problem).

        2) More time spent on Aurora. This would be fine for an aggressive driver, but a passive one would take forever to force his/her way over to take the left turn (or stay in the left lane after the turn, which would be a mess during rush hour).

        3) Even more turning (90th and 92nd).

        I think that would still be substantially faster than the current route, and not lose that many passengers (you would gain back a few by covering parts of Aurora and Wilson Pacific). The big advantage of that over the alternatives is that it goes on arterials the whole way.

      6. @RossB

        To be clear I was noting that 90th/92nd would be less problematic than 100th. I am not sure that skipping 105th/Northgate way is worth the trouble after all of the construction is finally complete.

        Taking a detour on Aurora to 90th is not a horrible idea (in fact, with the construction going on, the 40 often detours on Aurora) but I am a little concerned about skipping the core of NSCC. There is still a stop before the bridge on 92nd but this is quite a jog from campus.

        Also of note is the loss of Northgate Way stop at Meridian. There is a hospital here (polyclinic) that is fairly high traffic. This is currently already basically gone with the detour for construction though… so maybe its not really necessary?

  3. Why not just add bus only lanes on James Street? Center Lanes for buses, outside lanes for cars queuing for the freeway.

    1. Not enough room. You’d just extend gridlock into more of First Hill. Also, center bus lanes wouldn’t work well because most of the I-5 traffic is turning left from James.

      In general it’s easiest to get local buses away from freeway interchanges where possible.

      1. Interesting thought though – let everyone off in the middle of the street and see who survives the dash to the curb.

      2. Tha’ts exactly how streetcar operations used to work though – let everyone off in the middle of the street and dash to the curb. Many places wound up building middle of street platforms for helping safety a bit.

        Though, the dash to the curb might not be as exiting as it sounds based on the lack of traffic speed that I’ve seen through there.

      3. It’s a 4-lane wide road, right? I have a hard time believing there is no configuration that could busses semi-exclusive lanes. Maybe make normal traffic 1-way and only have 1 contra-flow lane for busses only. We should be creative :)

      4. I think it’s better just to leave some roads to car congestion where there is an easy alternative close by. Here, it’s far easier to switch to Yesler than to try to fix James, especially because nearly all of the traffic is turning on and off James in the affected area.

        Yesler’s not ideal either, but at least it would be reliable with very little extra effort.

      5. Market Street (San Francisco) trollies still operate that way. Also, BRT in Arlington, VA operates with operations in the center of the roadway with platforms along the route. Signalized ped x’ings provide access to the outer curb of the roadway.

  4. I say use the Seneca/Spring Couplet and 9th Ave (already wired for trolley service) for the Routes 3 and 4. That would continue almost front door service for Virginia Mason Hospital, since most of you advocate for the abandonment of the Route 2 service along Seneca St and put the service on Madison St instead (and lack of any connections to the transit tunnel there). Yep, Seneca/Spring has it’s flaws too (slow PM due to traffic headed to freeway entrances), but it is already wired for service. I remember the route 40 was supposed to terminate in First Hill somewhere, but due to lack of $$$, it was not done (I remember as part of the service change documents, service planning was under orders NOT to thru-route Route 40 with any other service).

    1. In other words, your solution to slow and unreliable Route 3/4 service is to make it even slower and more unreliable…

      Next Tuesday I will have a post up suggesting a solution to the lack of tunnel connections (among other issues) from Madison which doesn’t require buses to sit in the Spring Street schedule graveyard.

    2. Harborview is the largest transit draw on First Hill, and has the largest number of disabled and poor patients. It’s both the county hospital, a regional trauma center and burn center, and a major UW teaching hospital. Metro would stop serving the rest of First Hill before it stopped serving 9th & Jefferson.

      1. Never mind, I didn’t realize you were talking about Seneca – 9th – Jefferson.

    3. Seneca can’t be slower and less reliable than James. However, it would require eastbound buses to turn north just to turn south, and that’s not exactly speedy.

  5. This would be awesome. It also helps the never-going-to-have-a-streetcar Central District by giving it another connection to north of the cut, one that goes directly into “downtown” Ballard as well as onto Northgate (versus the extremely-popular-and-replaced-in-2021-by-Link 41). The only minor nit I see is that it makes the Sound Transit connection at 4th/James mean an uphill hike from 3rd, but you can’t have everything. :)

    1. Oh, and yes, the 40 can be connected to at Pioneer Square, but this change would let the stops be the same along Yesler which is much more preferable (and likely more reliable). The hills in downtown are “fun” sometimes.

    2. The 41 is one of my favorite routes. It will be sorely missed when they remove it from the tunnel (before Northgate link is open).

      1. I do love the 41. So direct from Lake City, so (usually) fast from Northgate. I wish they could leave it in the tunnel until the day that Northgate Link opens.

      2. Too bad there is no real way to get a bus from the UW station to the freeway express lanes… heck there’s not even a good way to get it to Northgate from there.

        I would end up taking something like the 48 back to Greenwood. To lake city way there is either the 372 or the 65.. neither are really a replacement for the 41 though.

      3. A surface-running 41 will stay in place until the day Northgate Link opens. The route has run on the surface before, and it’s really not too bad most of the time, particularly now that the Howell St bus lane is in place. The one time/direction that surface route can really hurt, inbound on Stewart at PM peak, affects the tunnel buses too.

      4. Inbound on Stewart at PM Peak, the 41 has to sit in traffic anyway, tunnel or no tunnel, because the express lanes are running the wrong direction.

        I really wish SDOT would find ways to get buses moving through the Stewart corridor faster. For instance, restricting the right lane of Stewart one block before Denny to buses and right turns only would help. Getting rid of the left turn from Denny to Stewart to save cycle time would also help, although finding an alternate path for cars to get from Capitol Hill to I-5 south might be tricky.

  6. How difficult do you think it would be to get permission from the under-freeway parking lot owner to route trolley buses through their main driveway between 6th & 7th? I’m talking about the main driveway about halfway between Cherry and Columbia. Without tunneling under the freeway in a new location it seems like that is about the only congestion – free crossing in that area.

    What really needs to happen is for more local streets to get reconnected across these areas that have been severed through major cities by Interstates, and I doubt we will ever see that happen unless some major changes happen with our federal transportation philosophy.

  7. Here is a better idea: close the James Street entrance to I5. It’s not like this area is lacking other freeway connections.

    1. Not likely. The long-term plan is to close the Seneca street and University street ramps as part of an I-5 widening project (elmininate those 2 ramps and you can extend the NB HOV lane all the way to Mercer, “fixing” the 2-lane NB mainline bottleneck) That plan relies on there being extra capacity on the James and Madison ramps.

  8. Would this re-route allow for 60 foot trolley coaches on Routes 3 and 4? If so, that would be a HUGE capacity increase and relief to many on the corridor.

    1. Only for a few trips. On the south end, turnback trips and route 4 trips could use 60′ coaches, but not full route 3 trips. But most south-end trips connect to north-end trips, and at present 60′ coaches can’t make it through either terminal loop on the north end. So you could only have a few 60′ coaches, and they’d have to be carefully scheduled.

      That limited number of 60′ coaches may be possible even without the reroute if the new 60′ trolleys have better wet braking performance than the MANs or Bredas did. Metro will now send any diesel artic in its fleet up and down James.

      1. Double-tall trolleys? ;-) (Seriously, I don’t know how high the trolleybus wire is.)

      2. Far from certain that there will be a new terminal at SPU. If there were, it could take artics.

  9. I wonder how long the Yesler bridge rebuild is going to take.. Beyond my own selfish reasons (I walk down that bridge all the time.) It provides a route for a large number of north bound express buses in the evening.

    1. From the noises SDOT’s been making, they’re going to be able to retrofit it in-place, so it won’t need to be closed. It’s just an expensive project that’s not high on the priority list.

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