At a media briefing this morning, Metro, SDOT, Sound Transit, and the Downtown Seattle Association revealed draft near term concepts for the One Center City Plan. Borne of perceived emergency due to expedited Convention Center construction and the removal of buses from the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT), the plan offers surprisingly aggressive options for transit restructures and street rechannelization, while strategically hedging on things like protected bike lanes and broader policy questions such as fare payment. Today’s release marks the kickoff of a public process that will involve an online open house (live tomorrow at onecentercity.org), successive rounds of public feedback, and independent adoption by the respective governing boards/councils by early 2018. Changes would likely take place in September 2018.
Though the long-term future of Downtown’s surface streets is one of less intensive transit use – as Link bears a heavier burden and fewer buses go downtown – staff called out a “period of maximum constraint” of 40 months from mid-2018 through late 2021. This period represents the unfortunate pre-Northgate convergence of Convention Center construction, a rail-only transit tunnel, a shortage of Link vehicles, East Link construction, Alaskan Way Viaduct removal, Alaskan Way rebuild and rechannelization, Madison BRT construction, Center City Connector streetcar construction, and more.
Without mitigative action and simply surfacing routes 41, 74, 101, 102, 150, 255, and 550, the agencies estimate transit travel times would increase by 3.5 minutes per rider per day. Metro estimates that this would add between $6-7m in annual operating costs and require 15 new buses in order to maintain the same frequency. To put this in perspective, this is roughly the scale of resources that was needed to split Rapid C and D and extend them to Pioneer Square and South Lake Union. This is significant, but whether it’s a pending disaster is a debatable question. The DSTT is a shadow of its former self in terms of buses, carrying a much lighter load than the arterials to which they’d move. And 20 routes and 50,000 daily riders were surfaced from 2005-2007 to prepare for Link, and the sky emphatically didn’t fall.
Though much of the draft concepts are too generic to be helpful – such as unspecified signal retiming and soft talk of improved partnerships – the nuts and bolts and transit and street operations could change radically. So what’s being proposed?
Most impactful to transit riders, the draft concepts involve widespread truncation of bus routes at Link stations:
- All SR 520 service that currently serves downtown (except Community Transit 424) would be truncated to UW Station (Routes 252, 255, 257, 268, 311, 545)
- Route 550 would terminate at International District Station
- Route 41 would live loop using the Pike/Union couplet, requiring transfers to access the southern half of downtown
- West Seattle and Burien routes would serve International District Station before heading to First Hill (Routes 37, 55, 56, 57, 113, 116, 118, 119, 121, 122, and 123). These routes would make use of the new Yesler Bridge and serve Harborview along the way.
Changes to Downtown Streets
Nearly as radically, transit priority could be substantially improved. The 4 options here:
- Option A: No action
- Option B: Retain current channelizations but make spot improvements, including signal retiming, policies to expedite boarding, etc.
- Option C: Intensify the 4th/5th couplet, including adding a second bus lane on 4th Avenue and a southbound transit lane on 5th Avenue.
- Option D: A two-way, transit-only corridor on 5th Avenue, and the conversion of 6th Avenue to two-way for auto traffic. In this scenario, nearly all buses would be removed from 2nd and 4th avenues, and transit service would be concentrated on 1st, 3rd, and 5th.
Staff repeatedly mentioned efforts to “speed up bus boarding”, but little detail was offered except for a discussion about handheld ORCA readers and the fleeting mention of “new fare-free zones”. Whatever is being discussed internally, staff are staying mum for the time being. Metro’s Victor Obeso noted that ORCA use has risen by 17% since U-Link and ORCA Lift – from 60% to 70% of boardings – potentially greasing any policy transitions away from on-board and/or cash payment.
In addition, Mike Lindblom of the Times asked if increased priority and/or enforcement on 3rd Avenue was a possibility, and staff would only say that “it’s being looked into”. Currently bus priority ends at Virginia St, ends at 6:30pm, and is rarely enforced anyway.
Sadly, the bicycle network is a mess of conflicting policies and goals. Policies recently adopted with great fanfare, including Vision Zero, were not mentioned in the briefing until brought up by media. OneCenterCity calls out a protected bike network as a goal, but makes no commitments to build it even though an Implementation Plan has already been passed and funding secured through Move Seattle. Even worse, the focus on vehicle throughput (whether SOV or transit) may actually worsen the bike network. Option C – which seems likeliest due to the Goldilocks nature of these proposals – not only doesn’t build the 4th Avenue bike lane just promised in exchange for axing Pronto, but it actually removes the existing bike lane. Something has to give, and it doesn’t look good for bikes.
The process kicks off tomorrow with hopefully much more engagement than has been seen to this point. Other questions abound, including:
- Though bus truncations would occur in September 2018, new Link vehicles won’t arrive until mid-2019. Can Link handle the load? Sound Transit admitted there would be a lag of nearly a year, but also stressed that improved running times may free up another trainset or two to boost frequency. Once the new vehicles arrive, Sound Transit may still look into running turnback trains from UW to Stadium.
- What would be done with the service hours saved by truncating routes? Would they be directly reinvested in frequency in order to sweeten the forced transfer?
- Will UW Station be able to handle the additional volume, and will UW make any concessions on access to its property?
The best case scenario is congestion-free trips on Link, easy and frequent transfers, reduced reliance on surface arterials, new transit priority, and (maybe?) some protected bike lanes. The worst case is crushloads at UW and especially International District, a grid that still doesn’t move, and a network that is no safer than when the process began. The reality will likely fall somewhere in between, and planners have an admittedly long list of priorities to balance and stakeholders to appease. It’s imperative that we show up in the next few months in support of aggressive transit priority, and for not delaying the overall vision along the way.