Amid the general hand-wringing about growth in Seattle lately – be it from Danny Westneat, Crosscut, or innumerable KUOW radio hours – there has been no shortage of discussion about the relative lack of transit service in South Lake Union. A combination of fewer transit options, abundant parking, and an affluent workforce have yielded a drive-alone rate in SLU (46%) that is more than double that of the traditional downtown core (22%). Though no one would argue that transit has kept up with growth, our agencies are working hard to catch up, with many potential projects to address the problem:
- By September, Prop 1 will have boosted service to every route in SLU.
- By March 2016, RapidRide C will have extended to Fairview/Aloha in SLU, and will likely share new transit lanes with Route 40 and the SLU Streetcar.
- SDOT has asked Sound Transit to shift an ST3 Ballard line eastward to two new stops in SLU.
- If/whenever Bertha finishes the tunnel, Route 8 may shift to Harrison and be (mostly) free of Denny, and bikes will have a new route on Thomas.
- The Downtown-to-Roosevelt HCT project will likely positively impact SLU arterials for transit.
- If the U-Link restructure is approved, new peak service to SLU will be added from Lake City, Wedgwood, Ravenna, Green Lake, and Northgate.
Aside from an ST3-funded subway – a line at least 15 years away if all goes well – the good projects above still generally tinker around the margins while continuing to treat SLU as a peripheral neighborhood. But SLU deserves transit service befitting what it has become, which is the northern half of Downtown. That means a lot of peak bus service, at least until 2023.
But if you look at the current peak network operated by Metro, Sound Transit, and Community Transit, you could be forgiven for thinking that the respective agencies still view SLU primarily as layover space for buses. Aside from Route 309, the closest any I-5 buses get to SLU is the view they get from I-5 while slogging towards Stewart Street. From the south, it’s much the same, with all routes petering out in Belltown or Denny Triangle and either deadheading back to base or laying over. From the eastside, the 554’s routing is particularly disappointing, with the last stop on 4th/Lenora in Belltown, from which it then deadheads into SLU to layover. Despite all the growth, the peak network still acts as though Downtown ends at Stewart. And of course, Mercer Street has no transit at all.
A perfect storm is brewing, with massive growth in north Downtown and SLU, Convention Place likely closing a couple years early, ever fewer buses in the tunnel, too few Link vehicles to mitigate lost tunnel capacity, and progressively degraded surface transit pathways. We need more transit, and we need more surface right-of-way (ROW), especially in booming Denny Triangle and SLU. Fortunately, these two neighborhoods have two wide arterials that are not choked with traffic, have a direct connection to the I-5 express lanes, and could have a relatively uncongested pathway into Downtown: Fairview and Virginia.
- Shift most non-SR 520 peak service away from Stewart/Olive/Howell to Fairview/Virginia, drawn from the following routes:
- Metro Routes 74, 76, 77, 111, 114, 157, 158, 159, 177, 178, 190, 192, 301, 304, 312, 316, 355
- Community Transit routes 402, 405, 410, 413, 415, 416, 417, 421, 422, and 425
- Sound Transit Routes 510, 511, 512, 513, 554, 577, 578, 590, 592, 594, and 595
- Add two-way bus lanes on Fairview between Mercer and Denny
- Add two-way bus lanes on Virginia, including a contraflow bus lane between 2nd-8th
- Add a bus-only turn lane from northbound Fairview to the Mercer on-ramp
- Add a bus-only turn lane from the Mercer off-ramp to southbound Fairview
- Make the Mercer off-ramp from the express lanes HOV/Transit only
- Remove the bus-only lane on Howell Street
Here’s how it could work.
Between Mercer and Denny, Fairview is 84′ of ROW, with 56′ available for travel lanes. It is your standard late-century 5-lane arterial, with two travel lanes in each direction plus a turning lane. Converting the outer lanes of Fairview to BAT lanes would be relatively easy, as they are currently used off-peak for parking. At Mercer, Fairview also has the rarity of enjoying double turn lanes to/from I-5, in both directions (see here and here). Could we take one of them for transit?
South of Denny Way, as Fairview forks into Boren and Virginia, things get a bit more complicated. From Boren to 8th Avenue, Virginia is a two-way, 66′ minor arterial, with 42′ available for travel lanes. Currently it has two eastbound lanes, one westbound lane, and one westbound parking lane. West of 8th Avenue, Virginia is a one-way, 5-lane eastbound arterial, with 2 parking lanes and 3 travel lanes.
Eastbound on Virginia, a curbside bus lane could shift to the interior lane at 8th Avenue, with no stops between 8th and Denny, allowing buses to proceed straight to Fairview while cars queue in the right lane for I-5 via Boren and Howell (see second image below). Westbound on Virginia, this proposal would simply extend the westbound lane from 8th Avenue to 2nd Avenue as a transit-only contraflow lane (see fourth image)
Points in favor:
- Cheap dedicated ROW: though I am not qualified to calculate capital cost, all that is likely needed for this proposal is removing street parking and restriping/resignaling the street. Shifting Stewart’s inbound trolley wire to Virginia could be done as funding allows.
- Puts most of SLU and Denny Triangle within 1/4 mile of peak express service (see map above)
- Serves Amazon HQ’s new front door at 7th/Virginia
- Could be served by any peak route except for SR 520 routes. The Fairview portion could also be used by First Hill routes 63 (proposed), 64 (proposed), and 309.
- Encourages concurrent improvements to Route 70 and telegraphs the eventual build out of the Roosevelt to Downtown HCT project, providing robust 7-day service for the thousands of new residential units being built on Fairview.
- Simplifies the network. Buses could use the same two-way pathway regardless of whether their trip uses the express lanes. No more Stewart/Howell/Olive express lane dance.
- Easily extends the 577/578/590s into SLU while allowing them to keep their Eastlake layover.
- Neither Fairview nor Virginia are slated for protected bike lanes under the Bicycle Master Plan, making these perfect transit arterials.
- The pathway is only 1/10th of a mile longer than the current Stewart pathway. Done right, there could be zero time penalty for commuters, and the split pattern of many Metro and CT routes could continue, with half serving SLU first and half (such as the 303, 355, etc) serving Pioneer Square first.
- Provides an alternative pathway during the highly disruptive Stewart Street construction planned for the Denny Substation project.
- SR 520 routes would need to continue using Stewart, as the 520-to-Mercer weave (5 lanes in 1 mile) isn’t allowed for buses for safety reasons.
- Many peak routes would either need new layover space or would need to directly enter service from I-5, potentially adding service hours.
- South Downtown and Pioneer Square commuters from the north may object to an earlier exit from I-5, even if actual travel time is roughly equivalent.
- Those who currently work in NE Denny Triangle (REI, Met Park, Hill7 etc) would see their walking distances increase by a block or two.
- Parking garage entrances on Virginia conflict with bus lanes.
- The parking on Virginia between 8th-9th is reserved for use by the Seattle Police Department, and even if approved by SPD, they would need other parking provided nearby.