SODO Station, 3 miles from South Lake Union
SODO Station, 3 miles from South Lake Union
One of the route reorganization proposals that has been featured in several Sound Transit Service Improvement Plans has been replacement of ST Express route 586 (Tacoma to the University of Washington) with a new route dropping off these passengers at Westlake Station, to catch Link Light Rail to University of Washington Station. The 2015 Draft SIP gives this proposal a number, route 591.

I am not sure how popular this idea is among UW students living in Tacoma, who might want to simply reverse the direction of the campus loop, and have it serve the U-District on the way to UW Station in the morning, and then have it serve the U-District last before heading down to Tacoma in the evening.

But, really, former 586 riders will not be the primary riders of route 591. With the rise of Amazon’s South Lake Union campus, among other multi-story employers in South Lake Union, there is plenty of demand for a route that not only makes use of the popular Seneca St. exit and drops off at Westlake Station, but also then heads into the South Lake Union business district. That demand exists right now.

Meanwhile, ridership on route 590 has ballooned from 2,139 daily weekday trips in 2012 to 3,011 daily weekday trips in 2013. (See page 77 of the 2015 Draft SIP.)

Let’s take an inventory of how many public bus routes from south of downtown Seattle are doing the SODO crawl, and how many are using the Seneca St. exit from I-5.

Exit from I-5 via Spokane St. viaduct:
King County Metro 101, 102, 150, 177, 178, 190
ST Express 590, 594, 595

Exit from I-5 via Seneca St.:
Metro 143, 157, 158, 159, 179, 192
ST Express 577, 578, 592

For Tacoma-to-Seattle commuters, there is no need to argue over whether the current route 590 or proposed route 591 path is better. There is already plenty of frequency in the peak direction to allow the trips to be split into 590s and 591s, plus the possibility of picking up a lot more riders with direct service to South Lake Union.

I realize I have totally avoided the topic of how route 591 would get to I-5 from South Lake Union and/or Westlake Station. Feel free to get creative in the comments.

65 Replies to “ST Express Route 591: A Great Idea Whose Time Is Already Here”

  1. Brent,

    I don’t see anywhere that it says the new 591 will “continue north into South Lake Union”.

    Most of the existing buses which use Seneca go up the Stewart/Howell/Olive corridor to around Eastlake. Is there some plan to reroute them into South Lake Union? The only such change that has been reported thus far on STB is to break the through route between Metro C and D and send the C-Line into SLU. The routing has not yet been announced.

    1. A couple of the Metro runs do go into Belltown to turn around, but that’s not SLU either.

  2. The route that immediately leaps to my mind is: Seneca -> Fourth -> Blanchard -> Westlake. Or, alternatively depending on which side of SLU they want to serve, Seneca -> Fourth -> Virginia -> Fairview. The southbound direction would be a little more difficult, since the route should ideally serve both Westlake (for transfers) and Second Avenue (for comparison with the 590). Perhaps it could take Fairview -> Boren -> Stewart -> Second?

      1. I’m not sure that really answers my question. Why not truncate the 591 at TIBS or SeaTac and have the UW-bound passengers take Link from there? That’s like saying when East Link is operational, the ST route 554 should take Seattle-bound Issaquah passengers all the way to IDS instead of dropping them off at the S. Bellevue P&R.

      2. The difference is that the southern end of the system is really slow. It zigzags back and forth, costing a rider a lot of time. This won’t be the case with other parts of the system (north or east).

    1. Ross, I once complained that Link will crisscross I-5 three times between Tukwila and UW. There is a blogger on here whose reply was something like “good.” He said that all that meandering was a good thing.

      1. The purpose of light rail is to connect neighborhood centers together and to significant destinations and transfer points. In south Seattle, the neighborhoods are east of I-5. West of I-5 is all industrial with only two tiny residential pockets and no other destinations. So that’s the reason for two of the crossings. Zigzags are slower than going straight, so the question to ask is whether there are significantly larger concentrations of pedestrians on the other side to justify deviating or even require it. In south Seattle there clearly is. For every person who wishes it were a Duwamish bypass, there are probably three or four people who get on/off in Beacon/Rainier. If it went through the Indiustrial District, they’d have a very long walk over Beacon Hill and across the freeway; or most likely they wouldn’t take it at all. There are no comparable number of riders in the Industrial District who’d have to go the other way.

  3. In consideration of the U-district riders, when U-link finally opens, the crush loads are going to be crazy. It’s already crazy even though it only goes as far north as Westlake. It would probably be wise to open U-link, then phase out bus service, examining to see which routes warrant their own UW routing. For the 586, I think it does, because it’s a really long bus trip that would be made more complicated and slower by transferring to Link.

    For south lake union, they could just renumber some existing 590 trips as 591 (maybe something like half of them), and then just route them up to SLU via the Seneca street exit.

    1. It will also take time for Link ridership to stabilize as people try the new service and compare it to alternatives. Not everybody is going to the center of campus. Some people are going to the periphery of the U-District or through it, and UW Station may be too far away for them.

      But for those coming from Tacoma to campus, I don’t see anyone preferring a bus from the U-District over transferring at Westlake. Link is 8 minutes every 6-10 minutes guaranteed, whereas buses get caught in unpredictable traffic at several points on campus, on surface streets, and on the freeway.

      1. I agree. Furthermore, potential crush loading should be dealt with by improving the system. It is really crazy to think that we spent billions on this system, and people are basically saying we shouldn’t use it to its fullest, because then it will be too crowded. We should funnel people onto Link because it will make the buses faster and more reliable. Then we should increase the number of cars on each train and increase the frequency.

      2. Good points. I am just thinking in terms of transfers. Two transfers is always more uncertain than one transfer, but given that the Link schedule is pretty rigid, that shouldn’t matter much. As for U-district access, would it make sense then to add another u-district Link station (called “North UW” or something) on NE 45th, or a U-district loop route to connect the different U-district areas to the Link station in lieu of the 71 – 73 routes?

      3. Alex,

        Brooklyn Station will be between NE 43rd and NE 45th under Brooklyn Avenue NE. It is already under construction; it will be that “North UW” station you want.

      4. To put a contrarian spin on this matter, I suspect that long distance commuters to the UW AND to the U District will not be thrilled to have to transfer at Westlake. Remember the Link is only going to Husky Stadium. I know, I know, it’s called “University of Washington”, but anyone who has walked up from the stadium to the center of campus on a typical winter day, may wonder at the advantages. Also, there are UW employees at the old Safeco Tower. Until LInk reaches the Brooklyn station, there seems no good reason to try to shoe-horn everybody into the LInk between Westlake and Husky Stadium. Maybe when the line is built out this will work, but I suspect long distance commuters would prefer a single seat ride for the long haul, regardless of traffic delays. I may be wrong, but I am confident others will tell me that I am.

      5. Mike,

        The UW-Tacoma Express bus bypasses downtown. Sure, Link will be at Pine Street much more quickly than the express bus most of the time. But that’s about where the Express bus gets in the HOV lane (a little farther north but not much) and spreads its wings.

        Meanwhile, back at the Pine Street Ranch the Link rider is riding the escalator up to the mezzanine and then on up to the street level, or maybe on a good day already at the stop for the 590.

        Then it’s stop and go through downtown and down the busway. Finally after that last left turn at Spokane the bus rises up into the heavens and starts flapping too.

        Of course, from an operator’s perspective the person on the express all the way from UWMC costs more to provide the ride, but to the rider there’s not much competition.

      6. The big underlying problem is the 5-year gap when UW Station is open but U-District (Brooklyn) Station isn’t yet. Ideally they’d both open in 2016 or the gap would be shorter, but for a lot of reasons including when ST1 and 2 passed and how much ST1 could ultimately afford and engineering challenges in the original (Portage Bay) alignment, it’s not. The tunnel will probably be finished soon but the station is just getting started.

    2. Also, ST doesn’t believe it will be crushloaded on day 1, but that it may exceed capacity by the target date (2030 or so). I’m not worried about it if ST isn’t. If it does underestimate the early load, it’ll have plenty of extra trains to put into service, and it can also run Stadium – UW shuttles. If full system capacity is reached in the late 2020s, there will be time to order more trains and install that missing ventilation shaft, if ST proacts (TM) three years ahead.

      Of course, “no day 1 crushload” does not include “first-day tourists”. But that’ll doubtless be on a Saturday so it won’t disrupt students.

      1. I suspect that ridership on U-Link will grow quite quickly, unlike the original Central Link ridership. College students are probably the most adaptable riders when it comes to choosing transit paths, especially if they are incoming freshman and won’t have a history of years of using ST or Metro buses to reach UW. Finally, many people will also be familiar with how to use light rail so it won’t be very novel like the original opening was.

        The real question in my mind is going to be how Metro restructures service once U-Link opens. That could easily add or keep thousands of weekday riders out of Link.

        For you transit ridership enthusiasts: Research how the introduction of the Green Line light rail benefits from the beginning of University of Minnesota fall semester last month. The weekday ridership went from 32K to over 40K on the second week of fall classes. I realize that more of the UM campus is now easily accessible to light rail than we will have at UW in 2016, but the instant “jump” because of classes is notable.

      2. That’s included in the numbers though. ST knows how many people are on the 71/72/73X, and how many people would be on them if they weren’t perpetually overcrowded and late, and the fact that students are more willing to take transit than others, and the new dorms on Campus Parkway, plus an unknown-but-probable increase beyond that. If ST underestimates it, it has extra trains or Metro can keep or reinstate bus runs.

    3. I see by the planning documents that ST still plans to run two-car trains. Why? There will be no devising walls in the stubs north of Husky Stadium Station, will there? If so, can’t they be far enough away from the station to allow three-car trains, at least the every other one that doesn’t go south? Seems pretty short-sighted.

      1. That’s just the prliminary operating plan. No doubt there will be adjustments once they gain some operational experience with U-Link,

      2. That was a very kind understatement.
        It seems like a colossal waste to build for four car trains, and then only plan to run two.

        Especially when even the internal forecasts show that that isn’t enough capacity.

      3. The third and fourth car add energy costs and maintenance costs and shorten the car’s lifetime. So ST wants to wait until it needs them. There’s no need to speculate two years early when ST can immediately add trains if they reach capacity.

      4. Well, my post was about finding out whether ST actually can “add trains if they reach capacity.” The demising wall at the end of the stub off the DSTT is preventing them from adding cars to trains now. I’m asking whether they have placed the demising wall north of Husky Stadium far enough beyond the cross-overs to accommodate three car trains. IOW, did they learn from their previous error?

        That’s not “speculat[ion]”, it’s “planning”. I didn’t say “Start running three car trains” from day one. I said, “If there is to be a demising wall north of the Husky Stadium, PLEASE build it far enough from the crossovers that three car trains can be run if needed.”

  4. The purpose of the SODO busway was to get buses off I-5 near downtown, both to avoid freeway congestion and to avoid being freeway congestion. So moving buses back to I-5 is essentially throwing away that investment, doing an about-face, and intentionally underutilizing dedicated bus lanes (which we need more of, not less of).

    1. What will the utilization of the busway be when the DSTT switches to rail only? Seems like it might still be better just to stay on I-5 and get off at Seneca.

      1. Of course, that disregards a lot of people who work in SoDo. That is why I like a 590/591 split that addresses both populations of riders.

        On a side note, I would bet that a lot of the workers going to SoDo are lower income than those going into downtown/SLU.

      2. Surface routes also use the busway sometimes; e.g., during ballgames. So the 101, 106, and 150 can just move over to it from 4th Avenue South. A bigger question is, what will be the utilization of the busway if those routes are someday truncated?

      3. This is why we need this:

        Buses from the south shouldn’t have to slog through I-5 downtown, nor slog through the surface streets. They should go on the SoDo busway and into a tunnel that allows them fast and convenient service through downtown. If they then want to go to South Lake Union, then they can walk from Belltown, or transfer to another bus. I wouldn’t reroute this bus to South Lake Union, but if you did, then it would be a lot faster if it could travel along a tunnel most of the way.

      4. Maybe a few people work in SODO 9-5, but the numbers are nothing compared to the people that work downtown. And outside standard working hours, almost nobody has SODO as their actual destination – it’s just a place to slog through on the way to the real destination.

  5. Replacing the 586 with the 591 & U-Link is not a full replacement though. U-Link only goes to UW Station, while the 586 also serves 15th Ave and 45th St. Several trips would be turned from one-seat rides to three-seat rides, since those riders would have to transfer at UW Station to another bus.

    When the 45th St Station opens, replacing the 586 becomes much more justifiable.

    1. Good point. As has been mentioned, the Husky Stadium station is not a great one (if we had to pick one station for the area, we would pick the U-District station). Buses especially have trouble interacting with the area. This means that those who want to get to the other side of campus or other parts of town shouldn’t expect huge improvements in bus service to the area (e. g. the 73 won’t be rerouted to serve the station).

    2. In practice, the number one-seat rides turned to 3-seat rides would be quite small. The UW campus is not that big and if we’re talking about a specific spot on campus that’s a 12-minute from the UW Station vs. a 5-minute walk from 15th and 42nd, it is not worth the overhead of waiting for and riding an extra bus just for a 7-minute difference on walking. With few exceptions, able-bodied people heading to campus itself will just walk from the UW station, even if it’s slightly longer than the previous walk.

      About the only place that the 586 serves today that would be a mile or more from the UW station is the western part of the U-district (west of 15th). Those people would presumably still have the 70/71/72/73, so it would still be a two-seat ride. And with many current riders of the 71/72/73 switching to Link (because their ultimate destination is campus), those buses would presumably be a lot less crowded than they are today.

      Based on my observations today peaking through windows, the 586 is not exactly packed to the gills – each trip fills maybe 1/2 – 2/3 of the seats, and the subsidy per passenger of the route is quite high. It does not make sense to give people commuting such long distances between two very specific points such preferential treatment in terms of allocating so much tax money to serve just them, and only do so slightly better than routes which could carry people between a much larger variety of origins and destinations.

    3. I can already see the need for a network of “shuttle” type routes around the UW to connect the campus and hospital facilities with Link Light Rail. I think it would be a good use for trolley coaches, or the electric Proterra buses.

      1. Such shuttles already exist, albeit with private funding and completely separate from Metro. I see no reason why there wouldn’t be interest in modifying the shuttle routes to connect better with the UW station, but that’s the decision of the people paying for them, not Metro’s.

      2. Bikeshare could also help a lot. It would be a very safe, very easy, very quick ride from the station to a bus stop serving the 71/72/73. Much faster than any bus.

        My guess is that the buses won’t be truncated when U-Link opens (waiting instead for North Link). It is just too hard for a bus to get over there. You could reroute the buses through campus (e. g. turn every 73 to a 373) but that would still mean a hefty walk of around four hundred yards. That is much better than if they did nothing, but still too far to make it easy for Metro to make the change (although you never know).

        This means that someone from downtown might just wait for a 7X bus, instead of taking a train, then riding a bike, then getting on the 73 (which came from downtown). But someone from Capitol Hill, on the other hand, would certainly want to ride that bike.

  6. The walking distances to SLU from the existing 590 are not that bad – the route through Denny Triangle serves the Amazon high-rise offices already. Walking from there to the absolute northern edge of Amazon’s campus along Mercer is ~1 mile. However, Amazon workers living in Tacoma can take Sounder and then the Amazon-operated shuttle from King St Station, which might still be preferable to a direct bus service. The Streetcar is also an option for workers at the northern edge of SLU, Fred Hutch, etc.

  7. Spokane exit, express (real, not just sign) busway to IDS. Express thru DSTT to Westlake using passing lanes at Pioneer Square and University Street. Passenger stop WLS.

    CPS, ramp to Terry, Terry to Westlake. All stops SLU. Fairview to Eastlake, express to UW.

    Understand hybrid needed. No SEA routes that don’t absolutely need one?

    Understand Pierce drivers need DSTT training. Put them in same class as KCM drivers who can’t figure out how to get a hybrid started in DSTT.

    Understand implications of DSTT express. If bus signals are still in there as designed, use center lane. And train drivers accordingly.

    Signal pre-empt whole route do-able and overdue.

    Know all reasons this is going to take work. Questions:

    1. Will this save or lose time if implemented?

    2. If answer positive, how important enough is this route to justify extra effort?

    3. Ability of operating personnel to handle? Best chance of positive than for above questions.

    If I can, will check out and post. Time deadline?

    Mark Dublin

  8. Do we have any numbers on the time travel savings for a SODO bypass for Tacoma express service?

    Only issue I would be worried about is traffic delay coming from SLU impacting total wait time near Westlake. The additional passengers (local and express) from SLU will help with the route’s metric for passengers per service hour.

    1. Depends on traffic, but if there are no road delays, I would estimate a savings of at least 10-15 minutes. It’s not just SODO being bypassed, but also Pioneer square and a couple of right-angle turns around the stadiums.

    1. Unfortunately, the southbound side of the transit tunnel is seriously crammed. There’s plenty of capacity northbound, but by definition buses exiting at Seneca are not able to use it.

      1. The tunnel is pretty much at capacity for buses both directions during PM peak-of-peak, with a similar number of buses going each way. Are you referring to some other time or measurement?

        As it is, Metro is having to figure out some routes to kick out of the tunnel when U-Link testing starts up, and train headway decreases to 6 minutes during peak.

        Also, it is highly unlikely Metro will allow Pierce-Transit-operated buses in the tunnel. Their tunnel supervisors need to have authority over the operators using the tunnel.

      2. Brent,

        I guess you’re right, at least in terms of the number of routes which use the tunnel. It sure seems like there are more buses on the southbound side in the afternoon peak, though, which is the important time for operations because that’s when people are boarding.

    2. Yeah, we probably have already passed the “initial” period. We can’t add buses to the tunnel, so it would mean kicking out another bus (which won’t happen).

      I really don’t know what to do in the interim, but I really think we need a new bus tunnel — the alternatives are really poor.

  9. Two things I’ve never understood are:
    1) Why does Federal Way get a SODO bypass while other places don’t? Is the intention that people in Tacoma who don’t want to endure the SODO busway slog will drive all the way to Federal Way to ride the bus? Or are there gobs of people who commute to SODO from Renton, Kent and Tacoma, but not Federal Way? (Based on my observation riding these route, this is not the case).

    2) Why do Tacoma and Federal Way get a downtown bypass to the U-district, while closer in neighborhoods, for whom the overhead of going through downtown comprises a greater proportion of the total trip time don’t? It is not reasonable to coddle people with 40+ mile commutes with one-seat rides everywhere.

    1. 1) the 59x series routes, up until recently, have always used the bus way since the service was first started in 1990 with Pierce Transit. As you will remember it was contracted out to Seattle Metro and was peak only. Only many years later did it become an all-day route, and added weekend service, first Saturday, than Sunday. As for why it used the E3 bus way, my only guess is that it started at the same time as the tunnel was opened, and they probably thought it convenient to use it.
      2) I think this has to do with Metro’s Popular 197 that ST added a similar and very popular service from Pierce County.

    2. Metro had a route 133 going from Burien and White Center to UW until 2012. It was discontinued due to low performance. Route 167 from Renton to UW is also on the chopping block, for marginal performance.

      Adding new routes to UW from within Seattle was quite difficult before 2012 due to the 40/40/20 rule, requiring 80% of new service be deployed outside Seattle, as well as the lack of revenue to fund any new service besides RapidRide. Now, the issue becomes more and more moot as the countdown to U-Link’s opening passes below 500 days.

    3. On question two the obvious answer is “It’s Pierce County subarea tax money that’s funding the Tacoma-UW express. They can do with those funds what they want.”

  10. I think that this may be a good time to start a discussion about buses *in* Downtown Seattle. The historical attitude has been that “all routes end downtown”. Made sense 30 years ago when the CBD was big. Now, you have the SLU, First Hill, a sprawling UW campus, Bellevue/Redmond, and other non traditional downtown locations, which brings up the question Is there enough ridership going through to these places to justify through service, rather than forcing a transfer? Would it make sense to say, have the proposed 591 continue to South Lake Union, maybe add a “593” going to First Hill similar to metro’s 193, and to rebalance all the peak 59x trips more appropriately to intercept people outside the CBD? I realize some people will complain about “one seat rides”, blah blah blah, but does it make more sense (and would it free up capacity on the urban routes) to have peak suburban services pick people up closer to their worksite rather than forcing a transfer?

    1. No, it makes a lot more sense to make people transfer because more buses will increase the frequencies on the routes since the buses will not duplicate with raid transit.

    2. Metro has already been thinking about and in a few cases actually extended downtown termini to SLU or First Hill. It’s not inefficient if it’s just extending the terminus and is well-used. It also helps with getting layovers out of downtown, which makes the city happier and is probably easier for Metro’s operations. Also, SLU is fast becoming part of downtown, and First Hill probably always was. Also, the north-south through routes provide the same function in other parts of downtown.

  11. One dirty little secret about the 594 is that spends more time slogging through surface streets within the downtowns of Seattle and Tacoma than driving all the way between them down the freeway.

    1. We used to have more routes, including the previous incarnation of the route 591, which split up the Tacoma destinations more. The old route 591 skipped Tacoma Dome Station, IIRC. I think it went away due to performance issues, in particular having more riders boarding at TDS than throughout downtown Tacoma.

      Route 574 skips downtown Tacoma, in favor of just stopping at Tacoma Dome Station.

      1. IIRC, you have the old 591 backwards. It was sort of in between the 592 and 594… Lakewood to Seattle with a stop at the Tacoma Dome Station. The 592 was extended to Dupont before the 591 went away, but like the 594, the 591 only went as far as the 512 P&R (since this predates the Sounder extension).

    2. I’m not surprised. The difference will become even greater when the state finishes the HOV lanes on I-5. I’m not sure what to do about Tacoma, but I think a new transit tunnel makes sense for Seattle:

      This type of project is tricky if you want to preserve subarea equity. Technically, it would be a Seattle project, but if a substantial portion of the buses come from other areas (Renton and Tacoma) and in my opinion they should, I’m not sure how that is supposed to work. This is another reason why subarea equity is a mess. You should just elect a board, allow enough veto power to prevent some areas from dominating the construction, and give them a bunch of money to build the best system for the money they can. It would be better than the system we have now.

    3. So true about the 594. I ride it from REI stop to Tacoma Dome quite often, and it does take longer meandering through downtown Seattle than it takes on the freeway after it leaves Seattle. Would be a good tunnel candidate.

      1. I do think another Transit Tunnel will be the best investment in the region since light rail is best investment when buses connect to it and make people transfer to other places.

      2. If the 594 could get on and off the freeway in the middle of downtown and not crawl through SODO, and if it could operate with 2-door, rather than 1-door buses, that would help things considerably. And at a much cheaper price than a second transit tunnel.

        If we do build a second transit tunnel, it should be for Link to Ballard, not for buses.

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