In the wonky discourse around Seattle transit, there are plenty of good ideas floating around for small transit projects that could incrementally improve service quality, and there are also some good ideas and lots of enthusiasm for large projects that would radically improve transit in the city, but there are very few which lay out how an agency could spend, say, ten million dollars, to save more than a million dollars a year, indefinitely into the future. With sales tax revenues slowly recovering, and Seattle newly in the business of large-scale service purchases, I’d like to propose — or, rather, revive — just such a concept.
Here’s the problem: when designing routes that connect north Seattle to downtown, Metro planners have to do something with the bus at the south end of downtown. Their options are:
- Continue on as a different route to the south (“through-route”). This is the option Metro historically favored: it’s the cheapest, and because much of Metro’s network, until recently, revolved around infrequent routes, it provided crosstown connections that would otherwise have been unwieldy. The price of through-routing, though, is unreliability, and which has only become worse as the city center has grown impressively in both jobs and congestion. Examples of through-routes include RapidRide C and D, and Routes 5 and 21 — and most riders of both pairs of routes would benefit dramatically from them being split.
- Deadhead the bus back to a base in SoDo. This is the option of last resort: it costs about fifteen minutes of service time per round trip to get a bus back and forth between Pioneer Square and SoDo, and riders get no benefit for that time and diesel. A base deadhead is more reliable than a through-route, but buses are still at the mercy of stadium and I-90 traffic. As far as I know, the only Metro route that does this is Route 40.
- Lay over on-street in Pioneer Square. The operationally preferable choice is to park the bus as close as possible to the stop where it goes out of service. The disadvantage of this approach is most apparent to the neighborhood: buses consume much of the curb space in Pioneer Square, which merchants and residents would much prefer to see used for car parking, parklets, bikeshare — basically anything other than out-of-service buses. The available street space for on-street layover appears to be exhausted, and in fact the Pioneer Square neighborhood association has been effective at lobbying SDOT and Metro to remove some layover spots. RapidRide E is the most prominent route that still lays over near this area.
There’s a solution, although I can’t take credit for it — it’s been knocking around among Seattle transit professionals for years, and even made it into Metro’s capital plan, before being axed in the doldrums of the recession. A block of land, today mostly occupied by surface parking lots, at the boundary of Pioneer Square and the International District, sits atop the tunnel portal at the north of International District Station. To protect the tunnel and station structures, it’s restricted from high-rise development — only six-story, mostly-wood-frame structures are possible, like the Hirabyashi Place affordable housing development underway on the southwest corner of the block.
Here’s the idea: buy the eastern half of this block, and build a combined bus layover and affordable housing facility on it. The transit functionality of this building would occupy only the ground floor — it would be like a one-story, covered parking lot, but with numbered lanes for spaces, and possibly trolleybus overhead mounted to the roof. Upper floors of the building would be affordable housing, presumably built in partnership with Seattle Housing Authority. All-day routes that deadhead to SoDo, or lay over in Pioneer Square, would move into this facility — RapidRide E, Routes 40 and 70, possibly Route 16, and a split RapidRide D being the obvious initial candidates.
More after the jump.
The reliability benefits, and improvement to the neighborhood streetscape are probably intuitively obvious, but the cost savings may not be, and they are a crucial part of why this isn’t just a dream. Suppose that a single bus in service costs about $135 per hour — a reasonable ball-park figure for Metro. Now consider a route that runs at least as often as every 15 minutes: eliminating the 15-minute (round trip) deadhead from SoDo to Pioneer Square allows Metro to provide the same frequency of service on that route with one less bus than would otherwise be needed.
Imagine a version of RapidRide D, split off from RapidRide C, that runs at least every 15 minutes, 16 hours per day, 365 days per year, and which would otherwise have to deadhead to SoDo. A layover facility in Pioneer Square would save Metro about $780,000 per year in deadhead time on such a route. Likewise, Route 40, which today operates about 11 hours of frequent service, six days a week, could yield savings of about $463,000 per year — and with the passage of Prop 1, the extension of frequent service on that route into the evenings and on Sundays, would only increase those savings.
Building such a facility would cost real money — I don’t know how much, although I would guess on the order of ten to twenty million dollars for the transit facility. Building affordable housing on top would require coordination with, and a financial commitment from SHA. But the financial dividend for Metro is huge, as is the aesthetic dividend for Pioneer Square. The facility wouldn’t have to be built all at once: Seattle could lease some of the parking lots immediately, and use them to provide layover for at least a couple of major routes. Subsequently the lots could be purchased, and the permanent facility built, as funding becomes available.
I ran this idea past Bill Bryant, Manager of Transit System Development at SDOT, and he replied, “Such a facility would certainly be a welcome addition to the system. SDOT would really like to see the added flexibility and efficiency that would come with well-located off street layover facilities in both the north and south ends of Downtown.”
Everyone agrees we need more housing and better transit in Seattle, and this proposal achieves both of those goals, in a technically and legally straightforward way. What we need now is for transit advocates to talk up this idea, and bring it to the attention of elected officials. The initial goal would be for SDOT or Metro to perform a feasibility study, and then seek funding, possibly from from state or federal grants, but most likely from a future Bridging the Gap levy, for which this is a perfect transit project.