Diagram by Oran

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.

49 Replies to “Wanted: A Pioneer Square Bus Layover Facility”

  1. Something along the lines of what Pierce Transit has at 10th & Commerce, but with Affordable Housing on top?

    1. I can’t find a bus facility at that cross-street (it looks like 10th doesn’t intersect Commerce?) but yes, other agencies have facilities like this.

      1. It’s where the buses meet in Downtown Tacoma, what Pierce calls 10th & Commerce. Look on Street View where South 10th St “would be” if it intersected Commerce. You will see a regular parking garage on one side, and on the other side you will see an entrance marked “buses only”

      2. Yes, exactly like that. (Well, maybe not the weird angled concrete stuff, but yes, that with wood frame on top).

  2. Such a facility is also needed on the north end of downtown / SLU area. ST express buses from the south would be an obvious for layover there instead of along eastlake.

    1. That would be a better use of the spot. Rebuild the bus layover area; removing the now excess platforms in favor of more layover space; than the convention center can put a lid on top of the facility and use it for their needs.

      1. The convention center was talking about going underground, so the bus layover being where it is wouldn’t work under that scenario.

  3. Those cost savings numbers look great. The location eliminates the need for parking for the affordable housing project. It is arguably one of the best transit locations in the entire city. Add in the improved reliability for bus service and there is a really solid business case for this project.

    It is also a compelling story to sell to politicians and voters – it both reduces costs and improves service, while also providing ~100 new homes. With interest rates still extremely low, the time is now to move forward. Who knows how long the parking lot will stay undeveloped.

  4. I expect that the first floor above the buses would be nearly useless, but perhaps it could be neighborhood retail. Nobody, not even otherwise pretty desperate low-income folks, is going to want to live immediately above a facility to and from which diesel buses are constantly coming and going, starting engines, and idling.

    Other than that caveat, it’s a very good idea.

    1. I disagree because the buses would be electric or hybrid buses so this means less noise from the buses and also the hybrids have HUSH mode. So the the first would made have little to no noise.

  5. I’d be concerned about placing wood-frame housing on top of the bus loop, especially if trolley wires are to be strung. There’s a significant possibility of catastrophic fire.

    1. What about all the wood frame buildings (Single Family and Multiple unit bldgs) above garages and carparks full of gasoline fired automobiles?? Catastrophic possibilities there? You betcha!i

  6. Would appreciate having an architect or an engineer, or both, tell me where I’m as wrong about this as I hope. Deeply unreasonable included:

    “Six-story wood frame”, and the mindset that presently goes with the size and material hereabouts, describes perfectly what I miss least about Seattle. “Ugly out-of-scale, cheap-looking crate” is subjective. Same with “having watched them built, lipstick would beautify a pig better than siding does these buildings”.

    “Deliberately shorting people with lower incomes to enrich people at other economic end” also debatable, but at least arguable with figures. But am I right that “high end condominiums” with this construction are spherical cubes?
    In a nutshell: “Affordable by precisely whom?”

    But “tectonically dangerous fire-traps” is really what I want to know the truth about before I say or write anything else. Especially about having a terminal for diesel buses at the foot of it. Would people who could afford anything else ever move in there?

    So someone who knows, please give me some reading references that would make me stop bothering God with prayers of thanks for the fire station across the street.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Fire ratings of buildings is a very convoluted item to interpret for anyone who doesn’t deal with it daily, but this building will most definitely be comprised of a of concrete lower level and 4-5 levels of wood frame with a 3-hour fire rating between the garage level and dwelling units. The Seattle Building Code, based off the International Building Code, meticulously protects structures from fire and smoke, no matter what the construction type is. You can browse through the SBC by chapters at (

      In regards to diesel fumes, this layover will be treated as an enclosed parking garage with loading docks, which under the 2012 Seattle Mechanical Code calls upon a higher ventilation rate that is regulated by CO & NOx sensors to bring in the sufficient amount of Outside Air. No greater risk of contaminated air reaching the tenants than any other building. You can refer to this in the 2012 SMC Section 404.1 items 1-2 (

      I would think Metro could make up a lot of the cost of the property by selling the air rights and placing in the contract the use of the lower level as a layover for the buses. Heck, they could sell all the property and contractually lease the space for the next 100 years (a common practice, i.e. UW and Rainier Square). Therefore, if Metro plays their cards right, they wouldn’t even have to pay for this project.

    2. If Metro were to act quickly and purchase this property, they could pull off a similar scheme as the University Christian Church that just sold their parking lot to be developed into low income housing with the clause that the first level of parking is entirely devoted to the church and separate from the housing.

      1. That would make a lot of sense, except I think the general plan is to simply layover inside the UW. I’m pretty sure that’s what the various buses do now (372, 373, etc.). It might save some time to actually skip the UW and layover at the church, but I think that would be unpopular (and going through campus is actually fairly fast).

  7. The building you’re describing would be concrete on the ground floor, including the ceiling above (first floor of housing). Common construction in terms of fire safety, and sound would be no different than any other dwelling located above the last parking level in a building.

    Probably safer than a string of busses idling at the curb in front of wood buildings, and both are rather low risk.

    1. Bruce, and Andy W, thank you for the information about building construction. But also for insight into dealing with strong personal reactions. Same menu item can be delicious to one person, extremely unappetizing to the other-and equally safe, nourishing, and well prepared for both.

      Also, understanding that two personally distasteful policy matters can happen simultaneously without one either causing the other or necessarily leading to the same outcome.

      I think the last 40 years’ removal of industrial skills from the hands our our people has done terrible damage to our country, including Ballard. And personally, I miss the machinery and the mentality their operation required.

      But I can’t directly connect these changes to the looks of a certain building at Market and 24th NW. And having moved to Ballard in 1985, I also can’t say that when local industry was at its height, that either homes or life in general were better or worse for the people who lived there.

      But somewhat different comparison: Downtown Seattle Public Library and the Ballard Library both class as excellent modern architecture. But with the first, I find most of the interior weird and unsettling the interior is cheerful and comfortable. Personal taste.

      But staff members downtown tell me that the building is very hard to work in, while Ballard staff loves working there. And to me, form that fights function is always wrong. As per another more [OT] example:

      First renderings we saw of the Breda fleet renderings showed excellent lines that advertized similar quality within. Buses we actually got? As with sports cars, angular lines forgivable. But machine underneath? Three decades of bad handling, passenger discomfort, and abominable required maintenance weren’t just my own definition of “indecency.”

      Pioneer Square turnaround- good idea, wherever it’s convenient. Though any site will require system of reserved lanes and signal pre-empt to make it work. And trolley overhead designed for fast, easy approach and departure. Deliver that, and since Zeitgeist and Caffe Umbria are so close, Starbucks’ in ground floor just fine.


  8. Doesn’t Metro have a large layover facility just a few blocks away, adjacent to Stadium Station? I always see parked buses in lots there.

    If so, maybe a more strategic location for this development strategy is in the Lake Union area.

    1. You are referring to the Metro bus bases. They are too far away and subject to game traffic to be useful for layover.

      1. The bases are just under a 1/2 mile away. And game traffic affects the proposed International District layover facility area as much as the SODO bus bases area.

      2. When Link opens in 2023, the need for Metro bus storage will decrease significantly. By the time this development gets funded and designed and constructed, we’ll be quite close to 2023.

      3. Not really. Most of the all-day routes that will or could lay over in Pioneer Square in 2016 will still be there in 2023. 16, 40, 70, D, E.

    2. It’s not just game day. Head out to 4th & Seattle Blvd or 5th & Dearborn at any reasonably busy day/time. The area is jammed and the bus lanes are fragmented and routinely violated. I suspect there is a lot that could be done to improve the current situation but laying buses at this location would be far more efficient. This facility would be impacted by game day traffic as well, but further up the line.

      I’m pretty sure the 40 is the only all day Metro route that lays at the bases these days. Sound Transit, however, has scads of routes that lay in the greater South Downtown area including the 522 and 545 at Central Base. All of the CT operated ST buses lay at either the ST Rail facility or another lot near SODO station. And then there are the trippers: 252, 311, 257, 265, 29X, and probably a bunch of others I’m forgetting that lay on the SODO busway.

      There are other housing providers in the area that may be interested. Plymouth is one that comes to mind but there are several. The key is funding.

      Another issue that comes to mind: The compatibility of a bus layover with housing. Buses are loud and smoky in most people’s minds. Our current generation of hybrids are a lot better than older buses and the new hybrids keep getting better. However, you’ll want to be prepared for that issue. (Anybody who’s seen a current generation 60′ LF Hybrid belch out a cloud of smoke from the uncontrolled emissions emanating from the auxiliary heater unit will know what I’m referring to. It doesn’t happen on the road often but when it does, it’s pretty nasty stuff. North Base has a ventilation / filtration system to address this issue.

  9. Looks like it is eight blocks from proposed site to current SODO bus base – straight down sixth.

    How likely is it that building a new base is a better choice than visibility/improvements on current path?

    1. Very. As I said in the piece, it consumes about 15 minutes of schedule time per round trip in typical traffic.

      1. But wouldn’t some contra-flow bus only lanes and traffic signal priority reduce that travel time down to be well under 10 minutes?

        With Link light rail coming, won’t the number of buses running through Downtown Seattle go down in a few years, giving lots more flexibility and layovers?

        With King County owning several buildings just a few blocks away, shouldn’t we also consider using their own curb-fronts for layovers?

      2. (a) Unlikely.

        (b) No. Almost all downtown routes that Link will replace are already in the tunnel, or are peak-only. 16, 40, 70, D, E will continue to layover in Pioneer Square.

        (c) All the public buildings in Pioneer Square that make sense for layover are already taken.

  10. Prefer to see as much ground level retail as possible.

    This is no attractive structure, but the lower level interior of this place:,-122.5689981,3a,75y,31.32h,86.28t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sPcpqrlAvlmp34bkJU4vCzQ!2e0?hl=en
    is bus layover. The office on the corner was vacant when the photo was taken, but is now a dental office I think.

    It would just be nice to see something on the lower level other than only bus layover, if there is space.

    1. The topography of the site should allow the bus layover on the lower level and a ground level entry off Fifth Avenue S. S. Washington St. is quite steep between 4th and 5th. If I recall correctly, 5th is also on a grade between Main and Washington. It might be possible for buses to enter closer to 5th and have convenient angled parking for the buses in the parking structure.

  11. How about pursuing this strategy at Yesler Terrace? It’s slated for major redevelopment, it’s not likely to have regional transit service anytime soon so a RapidRide extension to there or Harborview would be well-utilized, and a new market for RapidRide riders would be created.

    1. Because:

      (a) that’s not in downtown Seattle;
      (b) it takes as long to deadhead drive up Yesler as to SoDo; and
      (c) the lots at Yesler are not restricted in the uniquely suitable way that this one is.

  12. I’d be concerned about adding any more bus traffic on that part of 5th: it’s already a of a bottleneck. Are there any restrictions on buses on Washington because of the fire station? Otherwise, seems like a great idea.

    1. Great question about the fire station. If that concern is taken care of, you could have some terminal bus stops a block from Sounder, IDS, and the First Hill Streetcar instead of Union Gospel Mission. With great access to Prefontaine –> 3rd, 4th and 5th.

  13. Could they not just put a lid over the chasm that is right in front of the BNSF tunnel and make that a bus idle lot? They could even add a break room for drivers there as well.

    1. Theoretically, perhaps, but that would multiply the cost of the project many times over. Lids that can carry more than a park are stunningly expensive. The block I’m proposing here basically is on a lid of sorts, one that conveniently happens to already be built.

    2. Which chasm? The one in front of King Street Station is too narrow for buses to turn around well. I’ve been on a Thruway bus or two that managed it because they have to, but it isn’t an ideal amount of space.

      If it is organized line the office / parking / bus layover lot I pointed out above, or like the Pierce Transit facility that has a park on top and is mentioned above, the only wasted street space is the entrance and exit point for the buses.

      Filling in one of the places on eithet side of King Street Station creates more surface pavement, in a place that has so many traffic lights that getting the buses in and out of the layover would be problematic I think. I’d love to have a few routes closer to King Street Station, but in the end I don’t think it would work out too well.

  14. Bruce, bus layovers are a huge problem in South Downtown–they are gobbling up all of our curb space and the city is actually looking at expanding their footprint. Another problem is the span of blocks dominated by government offices and facilities that choke the ground floor of downtown from Columbia until Jackson Street along 4th and 5th Avenues. 5th & 4th are both downtown avenues until you hit Dearborn, but try walking them–they are horribly boring, and in places, not safe. We need active storefronts downtown to make our streetscape safe, and I don’t see how adding a bus barn accomplishes this. This location is essentially in the heart of downtown. It might make sense for a transit planner, but for a community planner, or from an economic development perspective, it flies in the face of years of community planning in this historic neighborhood. Additionally, the balance of incomes in this district is completely skewed to the lowest income bracket. Community members for years have ensured that low-income and minority tenants could age in place, and have worked hard to build affordable housing . These affordable units make up about 75% of our housing. We are hoping to broaden and add to this mix in the coming years to help sustain the mix of businesses and services in our district–while also providing workforce housing for people who have jobs just three blocks to the north. Where we need the most affordable units is on Capitol Hill right now. Finally, this idea of a bus barn in Chinatown-ID comes on the heels of the massive disruption of the streetcar construction, and the decision to locate the streetcar maintenance facility in the Chinatown-International District. For years, this community has been forced to absorb major disruptions and infrastructure investments at the cost of the community–from I-5, to the Kingdome, Safeco, and Century Link–this community is getting squeezed from all sides. These parking lots look like a blank slate for transit investments, but they are also the place where we could put a grocery store, or a dry cleaners, or a barber shop–for the people who actually live in the neighborhood to enjoy. Building something to make it easier to get in-and-out of downtown seems like a bad fit for this growing residential community.

    back-end transit support, but the challenge is that this community has been

    1. Good transit is what makes downtown livable. Sometimes that means you need to put some infrastructure in.

      As someone who works literally across the street and walks through the area daily, I would have no problem with this parking lot being being turned into bus layover with housing on top. There is lots of retail space in that area. Also there is a parking lot immediately west that can be redeveloped with retail as well as the parking lot to the east and the parking lot to the southeast.

      With the Bartell’s going in at 4th and Jackson, and the Uwajimaya three blocks south and Viet Wah 5 blocks east, do you really think the neighborhood needs a grocery store there?

    2. bus layovers are a huge problem in South Downtown–they are gobbling up all of our curb space and the city is actually looking at expanding their footprint

      Yes, I am trying to relieve you of this burden by proposing an off-street layover facility.

      We need active storefronts downtown to make our streetscape safe, and I don’t see how adding a bus barn accomplishes this.

      At least the east, and possibly most of the north and south faces, of such a facility could include small retail spaces.

      Where we need the most affordable units is on Capitol Hill right now.

      Irrelevant. People will live in any habitable building we build in Seattle.

      Finally, this idea of a bus barn in Chinatown-ID comes on the heels of the massive disruption of the streetcar construction, and the decision to locate the streetcar maintenance facility in the Chinatown-International District.

      Who cares? Capitol Hill and South Lake Union have boomed despite years of transit and road construction. Construction impacts aren’t Pioneer Square’s problem, and moreover those projects have nothing to do with this proposal, which would be a relatively minor project whose impact was no worse than market-rate development on this site.

      These parking lots look like a blank slate for transit investments, but they are also the place where we could put a grocery store…

      Bad news, mate, you will never, ever get a grocery store on this block. All the major grocery stores require a 10,000+ sq ft flat floor plate and 200+ parking stalls. That will never happen on this site, because of the grade and the subsurface structural limitations discussed in the post.

      …or a dry cleaners, or a barber shop…

      Both of which could be present on the ground floor as part of this facility.

      Building something to make it easier to get in-and-out of downtown seems like a bad fit for this growing residential community.

      No, it’s the perfect fit. As Matt says, transit is what makes Pioneer Square — perhaps the only place in Seattle where there is a preponderance of zero-parking buildings — a place that is viable for people to live. You, along with the rest of the city, need more transit, not less, and this is a way to reduce the cost of providing transit to your neighborhood.

  15. Very interesting proposal. I think there are actually a lot of opportunities for partnership beyond SHA. Plymouth Housing for example tries to open a new building every 2-3 years and they get a significant portion of the capital costs from the state Housing Trust Fund among other sources that wouldn’t draw on transit dollars. I wonder if someone from here would be well suited to propose this to a few of the private non-profit low income housing agencies (Plymouth, LIHI, Capitol Hill Housing etc) and see if they would be interested. I don’t know how such things work.

  16. I really like the current through routing on 5 and 21. For the 5, this gives one bus access to stadiums, Starbucks and Seattle Schools HQ, as well as International District. The 21 gets access to the Seattle Center, South Lake Union, Fremont and the Zoo. All these locations are just beyond the core downtown routing, but only a few minutes extra on the the through-routed bus (well at least when Aurora is not backed up…) The reliability problems I have seen are most common during rush hour downtown. The layover would not do much to help this.
    If we replaced through-routing with layovers at Jackson and Denny, we would also increase the number of buses downtown, further congesting the traffic and creating what nearly amounts to “deadhead” runs in the slowest part of the route. I would rather see increased through routing with reliability improvements focused on improving flow downtown. (A bus lane on battery from 3rd to Aurora along with priority signalization to access Aurora would be great helps.)

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