Note: This is the third in a series of four posts describing the details of Metro’s proposed “Alternative 1″ restructure, which would take effect at the same time as the planned March 2016 opening of Sound Transit’s University Link. “Alternative 1″ is the more ambitious of Metro’s two U-Link proposals. Our overview of both proposals, and our short description of the minimum-change “Alternative 2,” is here. Although these posts are under my byline, they owe a huge amount to the hard work of the entire STB staff, and especially Zach Shaner.
While Alternative 1 brings significant change everywhere it reaches, its effects are most dramatic in the greater SR-520 corridor. Almost every Metro and Sound Transit route that currently crosses the Evergreen Point Bridge would see some change, and a significant portion of commuters and off-peak riders alike will end up with new routines.
The vision is compelling: to serve a large array of commuter destinations on each side, with enough peak-hour frequency that lots of cross-lake commutes that are painful today become easy. Most connections will involve same-stop transfers or Link transfers with very short waits. Given the extremely peak-centric (although bidirectional) nature of cross-lake ridership, focusing first on the peak network makes sense. But, more than any other part of the restructure, making this vision actually work will require excellent execution by both Metro and Sound Transit. And the Alternative 1 proposal offers mixed signals in that respect. Some aspects of it are compelling right now; others may require refinement if the agencies are to maximize SR 520’s potential. More below the jump.
Before going into the weeds of route-by-route details, a table of the destinations to be connected across SR-520 under Alternative 1, both at peak hours and all day:
You’ll notice several major Seattle destinations (South Lake Union! Uptown! Roosevelt!) that have never before been accessible from SR-520 before without an additional transfer, and a few others that get served far more frequently than today. What’s more, every peak route in this list except for the 311 and 268 is bidirectional, so frequent service on a broad array of trips is available to forward and reverse commuters alike. Beyond the SR-520 routes, the extremely frequent Link connection at UW Station also opens up easy trips to downtown, Capitol Hill, and large parts of southeast Seattle.
So what is needed to make this frequent, multi-destination utopia actually work? Two things: easy transfers, given that many more riders will be transferring, and reasonably fast trips. In most cases, the network delivers on both of these goals. But there are a few issues that absolutely need the agencies’ attention.
UW Station Link Transfers—Make Them Better!
In our Northeast Seattle post, we mentioned how essential good Link transfers are if Alternative 1 is going to work well. This applies even more to SR-520 bus service.
Currently, during peak hours, roughly 21 buses per hour (all articulated) convey commuters between SR-520 and downtown, on six routes. Under Alternative 1, that number will fall to roughly 14 buses per hour on three routes (256, 268, and 545), with all of the other cross-lake capacity redirected to UW Station (and other Seattle destinations). Today’s downtown buses run very full, so there is not nearly enough capacity under Alternative 1 for all downtown commuters to take the bus all the way. Metro is counting on many downtown commuters transferring to and from Link at peak hour. If they don’t, the new 256 and 545 will face massive overloads, and the peak-hour system will break down.
Off-peak the change is even starker. The only two all-day routes currently serving downtown from SR-520, the 255 and the 545, would both be changed to serve UW Station during off-peak hours. Link transfers would be unavoidable for off-peak riders between downtown and the north Eastside.
Purely from a travel time perspective, the transfer to Link should be a good change for riders. Link will travel between Westlake and UW Station in just 6 to 8 minutes. That’s much shorter than current bus travel times, especially at peak hours when northbound I-5 congestion snarls SR-520 buses. But, of course, commuters have to take the mechanics of the transfer itself into account, not just travel time.
And Alternative 1’s Link transfer plan is not ideal. All SR-520 routes serving UW Station (except for the 255) would stop along Pacific Street in both directions, requiring one street crossing for inbound passengers and two street crossings for outbound passengers, along with probably 2 to 3 minutes of walking. Metro tells us it plans to move the Pacific St bus stops closer to UW Station, but that alone won’t change the necessity for so many street crossings.
The University of Washington in coordination with Metro and Sound Transit should work together to get transferring riders closer to the station in both directions. STB’s Adam Bejan Parast proposed a great set of ideas toward this end a few months ago. The three should identify a solution like Adam’s—even if it costs a few parking spots, and even if it’s not ready the day U-Link opens.
Montlake: Kirkland Riders’ Enemy
Route 255 riders transferring to Link would have it a bit better, because the 255 would continue north on Montlake (to Children’s Hospital) rather than west on Pacific like all the other buses. The inbound 255 stop would be right next to the station, and the outbound stop would require just one street crossing. But being on Montlake has its own problem. In the afternoons and on nice weekend days, southbound Montlake becomes extremely congested from 45th Street all the way through the UW Station area. Metro has not addressed how it will keep route 255 reliability at acceptable levels despite the Montlake congestion. One suggestion we have heard from multiple sources is to schedule a short layover (like other “W” time points in the Metro system) for route 255 at the southbound stop opposite UW Station. This would make trips a bit longer for through riders between Children’s and the Eastside, but would help reliability.
Freeway Station Transfers: Let the 271 Share the Magic
One transfer essential to this network is as easy as transfers get: the same-stop transfer at WSDOT’s new, comfy Evergreen Point and Yarrow Point freeway stations. Both stations are well-lit, safe, accessible for riders with disabilities, and sheltered from rain and wind. But one of the key routes in the Alternative 1 network isn’t planned to serve either station. Route 271, and its new through-route to Seattle route 45 (the current 48N), would require transfers in the U-District from some SR-520 routes and be completely inaccessible from others. Why? The 271 enters and exits SR-520 from the 84th Avenue NE ramps, which are too close to Evergreen Point Station for the bus to move safely across SR-520 traffic. This has been a sore point since the new stations opened, and wouldn’t get any better under Alternative 1.
The solution is to take the 271 out of Medina/Clyde Hill, where ridership is relatively low. Instead, it should use either Bellevue Way or 112th Ave NE between Bellevue Transit Center and SR-520. 112th Ave NE has the advantage of being the fastest route between the transit center and the SR-520 HOV ramps at 108th Ave NE. But on balance I favor sending the 271 along Bellevue Way, for two reasons. First, it would serve a multifamily housing area immediately north of downtown Bellevue, while 112th Ave NE has only very-low-density office parks. Second, the Bellevue Way routing would preserve the rather useful direct connection today’s 271 offers between the U-District and Bellevue Square.
Service within Clyde Hill could be mostly replaced by a reroute and extension of route 246, which currently terminates in east Clyde Hill, to serve 92nd Ave NE and the Yarrow Point Freeway Station.
Can The 311 Possibly Be Fast Enough?
Alternative 1’s new South Lake Union and Uptown connections are offered through revised peak-only route 311, described in more detail below. It would run about every 10 minutes, only in the peak direction. The route in Seattle (shown in blue at left) would be a bit circuitous. It would exit SR 520 at Montlake, allow for UW Station transfers, and then cross the southern edge of the U-District to enter the I-5 Express Lanes at 42nd. It would exit at Mercer Street, which it would use all the way to Uptown. This routing would create an Eastside/SLU/Uptown connection that has never existed before, and also a new peak-hour U-District connection to SLU and Uptown.
But it would take a long time, because of the trip through the U-District. Back-of-the-napkin math tells me the morning trip between Evergreen Point and SLU could take 20 minutes under normal traffic conditions, with the SLU-Evergreen Point afternoon trip taking even longer because of congestion near the Montlake Bridge. It’s plausible that taking Link from UW Station to Westlake, and transferring to SLU service there, could be equally fast.
Metro is forced to use this routing because buses cannot safely move across I-5 in either direction between SR-520 and the Mercer St ramps. I think Metro should also evaluate other routing choices which would avoid the U-District and could help a with downtown capacity around the edges. Inbound, buses could exit at Stewart like other downtown buses, but then turn right from Stewart onto Denny to serve SLU. Outbound, the Denny routing is unappealing because of the extreme congestion there, but there are other options both north and south of Denny that could work, with the bus entering I-5 at Olive. These options would reduce U-Link and U-District connectivity, but they have the potential to meaningfully speed Eastside-SLU trips.
As in our Northeast Seattle post, this section describes the changes in terms of the current routes serving SR-520, and how they will change for each group of riders. (We also mention three Eastside-only routes which are changing to accommodate revised SR-520 or SR-522 service.) For further information and maps, check out Metro’s route details page.
Route 207 (new). This hourly route would replace the deleted, low-ridership segment of route 271 between Eastgate and Issaquah, with an extension from downtown Issaquah to Issaquah Highlands.
Route 235. This route will be extended north from Totem Lake to Brickyard P&R along 124th Ave NE, replacing deleted segments of routes 252, 255, and 257.
Route 238. This route will be extended from Bothell to Woodinville via North Creek, replacing the deleted segment of route 372. As a Sounding Board member reportedly said: “Go home, milk run, you’re drunk.”
Route 242. Deleted. Green Lake riders would use route 542 (which will continue serving Green Lake during peak periods). Northgate riders would transfer at Evergreen Point between route 555 and route 542 or 545.
Route 252. Deleted. Replaced by more frequent service on route 311, which would add a stop at the Totem Lake Freeway Station. Local riders in Kingsgate would need to transfer at Totem Lake from route 235. Route 311 would serve SLU and Uptown, not downtown, so downtown passengers would need to transfer to Link at UW Station.
Route 255. This route would be revised at all days and hours to serve UW Station, U-Village, and Children’s Hospital rather than downtown Seattle. During peak hours, downtown riders boarding south of Kirkland Transit Center would still have a one-seat ride downtown on new route 256. Off-peak downtown passengers and all passengers boarding north of Kirkland Transit Center would need to transfer to and from U-Link at UW Station.
Route 256 (new). This route would be a bidirectional peak-only route between Kirkland Transit Center and downtown, running every 10-15 minutes. Downtown, it would use surface streets rather than the tunnel.
Route 257. Deleted. Replaced by more frequent service at route 311, which would add stops at Brickyard P&R and Totem Lake Freeway Station. Local riders in Kingsgate would need to transfer at Totem Lake from revised routes 235 or 238, or at Brickyard P&R from routes 235 or 236. Route 311 would serve SLU and Uptown, not downtown, so downtown passengers would need to transfer to Link at UW Station.
Route 268. Unchanged.
Route 271. Truncated to Eastgate, where half of trips end today. Riders between Issaquah and Eastgate would use new route 207. In the U-District, through-routed with revised route 45 to Green Lake, Greenwood, and Crown Hill. Would still not serve Evergreen Point Station.
Route 277. Deleted. Riders between Kingsgate and UW would use far more frequent, all-day route 255. Riders in Rose Hill would transfer to route 311 at Totem Lake Freeway Station. Riders between Houghton P&R and the U-District would use revised route 540.
Route 311. This route would be heavily revised both on the Eastside and in Seattle. It would become about twice as frequent, running about every 10 minutes throughout peak hours. On the Eastside, the route would add a stop at Totem Lake Freeway Station, to accommodate passengers from deleted routes 252 and 257.
Route 540. This infrequent peak-only route would be revised to serve Houghton P&R (and use I-405 south of Houghton), and skip South Kirkland P&R. South Kirkland P&R riders would use revised route 255.
Route 542. This route would become an all-day route with 15-minute frequency. Most trips would be truncated in the U-District, but peak-hour trips would continue to serve Green Lake P&R. In Redmond, all trips would be extended to Bear Creek P&R, and afternoon trips would exit the freeway to serve Overlake Transit Center the same way route 545 does today.
Route 545. This route would become peak-only, although Sound Transit has told us that “peak hour” would be longer than normal for this route. Off-peak riders would transfer between revised route 542 and Link at UW Station.
Routes 555/556. Unchanged.