Yesterday, County Executive Dow Constantine announced the long-expected sale of Convention Place Station (CPS) to the Washington State Convention Center for a price tag of $147M. The long-expected move provides the WSCC with the largest parcel required for its vision of a $1.4B expansion (financed primarily by $1.1B in 30-year bonds) that would be the largest such development project in state history. Bounded by 9th Avenue, Pine Street, Olive Way, and Boren Avenue, the full block parcel will likely begin construction in 2017 and be completed by 2020.
The move clearly has massive implications for transit, as CPS provides the northern bus access to the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT), the only transit-only access to the I-5 express lanes, and the single largest bus layover facility in a downtown where such space is becoming ever dearer. Though bus service has long been planned for removal upon Northgate Link opening in 2021, some agency voices had called for the WSCC to find another property so that Metro and Sound Transit (ST) could retain joint rail/bus operations in perpetuity, noting that as long as Link headways don’t drop below 4 minutes, excluding buses wastes the capacity of the tunnel in an increasingly congested downtown. With this sale, that option is now off the table. So what could losing CPS mean for transit?
Find out after the jump…
Link and Tunnel Buses
The DSTT currently handles approximately 1,200 buses and 275 Link trains per day, with peak-hour bus volumes down substantially since September when Routes 76, 77, 216, 218, 219, and 316 were removed to allow Link to run every 6 minutes. On March 26, 2016, the big ULink restructure will reduce all-day bus volumes by another 21% with the removal of Routes 71, 72, and 73. Because those routes are also restructured or eliminated, their removal from the tunnel will not exacerbate Downtown surface congestion. In addition, closure of the D-2 roadway for East Link construction will cause Route 550 to move to the surface in 2018, so the marginal loss of service at CPS distinctly attributable to the Convention Center expansion is really about just 7 routes: 41, 74, 101, 102, 106, 150, and 255.
Once construction begins, Metro will close CPS as both a layover facility and active transit stop, but in a phone call yesterday Metro’s Victor Obeso noted that the terms of the sale will require WSCC to provide a temporary ramp for non-revenue tunnel bus access until at least 2019. This temporary ramp would likely connect to 9th Avenue, where routes such as Route 41 will travel to access the I-5 express lanes at Pike Street, similar to the way Route 64 does today. Relatedly, 9th Avenue would likely be rechannelized for two-way operation. Buses that currently layover at CPS, including Routes 101, 102, 106, 150, and 550, would have new layover space under the current Convention Center between Pike and Union Streets. No major interruptions to trolley service on Pine Street are expected.
Things get interesting as construction progresses. At some undetermined point after construction begins but before Northgate Link opens, WSCC will need to permanently close bus access to the tunnel. I spoke to Pine Street Group developer Matt Griffin yesterday, and he insisted that full closure would be contingent upon WSCC and the agencies having a plan to backfill the lost tunnel capacity. Asked about this, ST spokesman Bruce Gray confirmed what many of us had heard rumored for quite some time, namely that ST may operate turnback trains between UW and Stadium stations from Convention Place’s closure until Northgate Link opens.
Gray noted that although the new light rail vehicles (LRVs) won’t begin arriving until 2020, ST retains some operational flexibility with their current fleet that could potentially add tunnel service in the event that buses need to vacate in 2019. He noted that a rail-only tunnel will be up to 40% faster between UW and International District Station (IDS), with running times between UW and IDS potentially reduced from 15 minutes to 9 minutes. Those time savings would go a long way toward purchasing the service hours needed to operate the turnback trains. With even headways between them, this could mean combined core service every 3 minutes during peak and every 5 minutes off peak, with current 6 minute peak and 10 minute off-peak service south of Stadium. Speculatively on my part, aggressive bus truncations and the related operational savings could form the basis of an interlocal agreement that would help pay for the added service as well. Truncating or live-looping routes 101, 102, 106, 150, 177, 178, 590, 594, and 595 at Stadium could either yield significant operational savings while saving riders’ time, or free up resources to add service to neighborhoods not served by Link, such as South Lake Union (SLU).
A wild card in all this is the planned closure of the tunnel to allow East Link construction at International District Station. ST’s Bruce Gray said not enough is known yet about the timing and extent of those closures.
Convention Center construction will also heavily impact Olive Way and Howell Street, critical outbound connections for most Community Transit and SR 520 bus service today. Obeso and Griffin both admitted that significant disruptions should be expected at various times, and that restructures may be considered that seek both to mitigate the construction headaches while also providing better service to places such as SLU.
Walking and Biking
Griffin – a famously carfree cyclist who lives Downtown – also noted his company’s commitment to an activated, walkable environment for the Convention Center, with street level retail and possible covered walkways between the Convention Center and Westlake. He noted that the expansion will double the Convention Center’s footprint while adding ‘only’ 44% more parking, with 700 new spaces alongside the current 1,600. While I certainly think that it still far too much parking, it is admittedly better than expected for a project such as this.
It remains to be seen how the project will fit in with SDOT’s planned Center City Bicycle Network, which according to the Bicycle Master Plan includes protected bike lanes on Pike St, 7th Avenue, and Union Street. A study of the CCBN is likely to be released sometime next year,
To tie all this together into an implementation plan, SDOT, Metro, Sound Transit, and the Downtown Seattle Association will be partnering on a Center City Mobility Plan, a new iteration of the same plans that have been repeatedly developed over the years, such as the Regional Transit Coordination Plan, the Downtown Access Strategy, and Access Seattle. The current version of this partnership will spend $1.5m to integrate Metro’s upcoming Long Range Plan with Move Seattle, the remaining ST2 projects, and a prospective ST3.