The One Center City plan for handling near-term disruption in Seattle downtown transit and traffic grinds forward. Anticipating the end of bus operations in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, staff are narrowing down the options. At last week’s advisory group meeting, we learned several project elements that are moving forward, and some that are not. It’s not clear whether the pared down program of operational improvements will be enough to prevent a substantial deterioration in service performance.
Meanwhile, the exit of buses from the tunnel, previously anticipated for September 2018, is likely to be delayed. On Monday, the King County Council Committee of the Whole approved an amendment delaying Metro’s vacation of Convention Place until at least March 2019. If the Convention Center doesn’t have its permits by June 2018, or if WSCC is not ready to take over the site by September 2018, then joint operations could continue until at least September 2019. The delay might allow another look at One Center City options that need more time for implementation.
What has been dropped?
The earlier proposal to terminate ST 550 at International District Station was dropped because of adverse impacts to riders compounded by East Link construction elsewhere on the route. The closure of the D2 roadway in late 2018 mean route revisions remain necessary, but the 550 will be operating through downtown on surface streets once the tunnel closes. It is not expected to operate on 3rd Avenue.
Also dropped are South Downtown transit hubs at Stadium or SODO stations. Despite eliminating the ST 550 truncation plan, agencies are examining improvements at the Chinatown / IDS station hub. These may include pedestrian safety and way-finding improvements, extending the bus zone northbound on 4th, and improving the southbound bus zone on 5th.
Three other bus restructure plans are still in play. The public outreach process is well underway for SR 520 service changes, and should commence for West Seattle and Northgate buses later this year. Metro is reviewing alternatives to the Union/Pike couplet indicated for the 41 in earlier proposals.
Conversion of 5th Avenue to transit-only operations (“Option D” in the January proposal) is no longer part of the near-term proposal, though staff held out hope it might be viable as a long-term mobility strategy in downtown. The challenges of implementing this project well in a short time-frame were obvious early in the process. There are construction conflicts with the Rainier Tower beginning this year and a transmission line project also closing lanes at the south end, so planners hesitated to add service on the street at this time. Some local business interests on 5th Avenue were unenthusiastic about a transit mall because of potential impacts to retail and the character of 5th Avenue in the theater/retail district. There were unresolved questions about street design. (Three lanes through the corridor might make for crowded sidewalks at stops. Two would mean buses could not pass).
5th Ave could have carried 120 buses per hour at peak even while preserving local car access as on 3rd. Current throughput is just 10-12 buses per hour and 850 cars at peak. Not converting 5th to transit operations gives up a lot of transit capacity for a relatively small amount of people-moving capacity in cars.
With dedicated transit lanes on 5th Avenue no longer being considered, and 181 weekday trips on ST 550 moving to downtown streets, the math becomes more challenging for the agencies. Executing well on the remaining bus restructures is imperative. Much rests on moving buses more efficiently on other downtown avenues.
Project teams are now focused on moving more buses on 2nd and 4th Ave (roughly Option B from the January proposals), and improving the efficiency of bus operations on 3rd. Some traffic improvements will play a role. Signal phasing on 2nd and 4th may clear right-turning cars from the BAT lanes more quickly, improving bus performance there. More details on 2nd / 4th Ave operational improvements are scheduled at the July meeting. 6th Ave is likely to be converted to two-way operations, easing one pathway for cars to move from South Lake Union to highway ramps, and mitigating 5th Ave auto lanes lost to construction.
All-door boarding and off-board fare payment may be implemented on 3rd Ave between Denny and Jackson. Staff estimate faster boarding could allow up to 20 buses per hour/direction to relocate to 3rd from 2nd and 4th without slowing travel times. The new route 41 pathway and the UW station area may also see all-door boarding. Off-board payment would not be added on 2nd or 4th Ave.
Even where implemented, off-board fare payment would not be mandatory. 3rd Avenue would operate similar to RapidRide (riders optionally pay at the farebox or board at any door if they have used an off-board ORCA reader or have a paper transfer as proof of payment). Additional ticket vending machines are not planned.
As agencies have made clear, a too-small response to the DSTT closure will significantly slow transit movements in downtown Seattle. With no action, Metro estimates an average six to seven minutes per trip for buses currently in the tunnel and two to four minutes for buses on 2nd and 4th Avenues. One Center City is expected only to offset about half of those delays. It gets worse if too many of the remediation steps fall flat.
The current set of narrow and targeted interventions in downtown are not convincing. The extension of joint operations for six or twelve months is an opportunity to revisit whether One Center City can do more.