Since the opening of Central Link in 2009, the process of restructuring the Rainier Valley’s bus service to feed the rail spine has advanced in fits and starts. With money from the 2006 passage of Transit Now, Metro extended Route 36 from Beacon Ave to Othello Station, connecting south Beacon Hill, and likewise Route 14 was extended to Mount Baker Station, connecting the Mount Baker neighborhood. Subsequent restructures eliminated the downtown-oriented Routes 34X and 39 in favor of a faster two-seat ride on the (unfortunately still-too-infrequent) Route 50. The notorious Route 42 finally croaked last February.
Despite this progress, one crucial loose end has remained: Route 7, the Rainier Valley’s core bus route, retains its pre-Link terminal loop in Rainier Beach, along with a complex turnback schedule whereby every third outbound bus continues on to the Prentice Street loop before returning to the layover on Henderson. This service pattern means the 7 can do nothing for riders heading south on Link, and the almost-useless Prentice St service pattern unsurprisingly attracts little use. A couple of years ago, I wrote (to mixed reviews) about one possibility to restructure this area, namely splitting the 7 and and connecting the two parts at Othello.
The recent failure of Prop 1 has brought about the next wave of changes in the Rainier Valley, which are a mixed bag. Several core routes are suffering frequency cuts in the midday and evenings, and loss of late-night service, all of which is very, very bad news. The redundant and underperforming Route 7X is being axed; that should have happened in 2009. One major, positive change is splitting Route 8 and combining the section south of Yesler with Route 106; this is very, very good for Renton, Skyway, and the Rainier Valley, although bad for a smaller number of riders in the Central District. The 7’s Prentice St loop will be cut back to a few trips in the peak, which is also bad.
More after the jump.
Into this mix of mostly-positive structural evolution comes SDOT, with a plan to fix the last loose end in the Rainier Valley. As part of the Rainier Beach Transit Center Project, SDOT is studying an extension of Route 7’s trolley overhead to the Rainier Beach station. The proposed extension would run west from Rainier & Henderson, turn right at MLK, and then loop around using a new private roadway and layover facility, to be built in the City Light powerline right-of-way, between Trenton and Henderson. The study is funded to conceptual design by a state grant, but no funding for construction currently exists.
This project is actually a resumption of a Metro-funded effort (of the same vintage as the 14 and 36 extensions) that never made it to construction due to the collapse of sales-tax-revenue during the recession. Much of the design work from that project can be reused. While the resulting service pattern is still formally being studied, there’s really only one possibility that stands out: terminating the 7 at this new layover, and adding a Prentice St shuttle to serve that tail. Somewhat like today’s Route 47 on Capitol Hill, this route would only require a single 40′ coach to provide half-hourly service, making it cheap to operate.
This combination of shortened-7-plus-shuttle would probably be operationally cost-neutral compared to today’s service, but the failure of Prop 1 and subsequent uncertainty around funding makes matters a little more complex. By the time Metro’s rounds of cuts are complete, the Prentice St loop will have been cut back to a few trips in the AM and PM peaks. Without more funding, it might only be possible to run the shuttle in the peaks. Even if the city passes a revenue package of its own, it seems likely that most of the money would go (as it should) to restore frequencies on high-ridership routes; the Prentice St shuttle may be further down the list than the money can trickle.
As with almost all SDOT bus projects, my only complaint is that there aren’t more of them, with more funding, happening faster. Just like the new Denny trolleybus wire, this project enhances the structure and utility of Seattle’s route network, at no operational cost, minor capital cost, and minimal controversy or construction risk. I particularly like how this project uses an otherwise-unusable area, underneath a powerline, to benefit the riding public. Along with adding trolleybus wire to Yesler and 23rd Ave, these are the kind of transit projects I’d like to see funded, or at least provided with local match funding, in the next renewal of the Bridging the Gap levy.