HCT study area Image: Pierce Transit

To establish a north/south link in the heart of the county, Pierce Transit is weighing the potential of high-capacity transit (HCT).

These systems, designed to carry a larger volume of riders with greater speed, reliability, and frequency than a standard fixed route bus system, can operate either on a dedicated track or lane, or on existing streets in mixed traffic.

With a goal of increasing bus speeds and ridership, in February the Pierce Transit launched a HCT feasibility study along Pacific Ave South (SR 7) between downtown Tacoma and Spanaway. The transit agency said ridership and cost will determine the most appropriate HCT mode, which could include rail, streetcar or bus rapid transit (BRT).

Building a high-capacity transit along this corridor has been in Pierce Transit’s plans for many years, said Alexandra Mather, a government and community relations officer for the agency.

“The economic downturn in 2008 required the project to be put on hold,” Mather wrote in an email. “Fortunately, with sales tax revenues up in Pierce County and successful funding out of the state’s 2015 Connecting Washington package, as well as a $60 million capital commitment for transit speed and reliability in the corridor from ST3 (Sound Transit Three), the project was made a priority for the agency.”

Currently, the 14 mile-long corridor is served by bus route 1, which has the highest ridership in Pierce Transit’s system with an average of 5,950 boardings each weekday. In 2016 route 1 carried 1.7 million passengers. But delays as high as 21 minutes plague the route.

Mather said HCT service will benefit riders by providing more frequent service.

“High capacity transit by nature provides faster, more frequent bus service to the community, such as every 10 minutes or less,” Mather wrote in an email. “By comparison, our current route 1 service — the most heavily utilized of all 36 Pierce Transit routes — runs every 15 minutes.”

The study area, which runs between the  Commerce Street Transfer Center in downtown Tacoma to 204th Street E in Spanaway, along Pacific Ave, is home to nearly 55,000 people — 6.7 percent of Pierce County’s population, according to Pierce Transit. The number of residents living along the corridor is forecasted to grow almost 25 percent between 2010 and 2040 with jobs forecasted to nearly double during that same time period.

According to Pierce Transit, average bus speeds in the study corridor have been decreasing, with some segment averaging as low as 6 mph. And with poor service reliability, AM and PM peak trips on an average run 8 to 15 minutes behind schedule.

Mather said this line will connect downtown Tacoma to the Tacoma Dome Station, a transportation hub servicing the Sounder Train, Sound Transit Link light rail, Sound Transit and Intercity Transit regional express routes, Amtrak, Greyhound, and local Pierce Transit service to the south end of Pierce County.

Pierce Transit anticipates choosing a locally preferred alternative (LPA) plan for the corridor by spring 2018. The agency is holding several open houses (September 13, 14, 19 and 20) in Tacoma and Spanaway to present the project to residents.  

38 Replies to “Pierce Transit considers HCT on Busiest Route”

  1. Glad to see them working on their highest ridership corridor.

    I hope whatever they build gets exclusive lanes though, or the delays will probably not really get that much better over time.

    Please learn from past mistakes (regional and nation wide) on HTC projects.

    1. There are portions of the route where we need exclusive lanes (downtown) and portions where we don’t. In my experience riding this bus, everything south of 34th St will be served much better by TSP and stop consolidation than by exclusive lanes that will serve only to rile up auto interests against the project. However, it may be a good negotiating position to start with exclusive lanes continuing as far south as 72nd.

      Unfortunately, downtown, where the lanes are needed the most, is where we are least likely to get them. The Tacoma Link streetcar should have been an exclusive busway for all routes through downtown, but that ship has sailed.

      1. Main reason the merchant marine went to steam, Eric. The Germans kept clipper ships the size of modern freighters on the seas well into the 20th century, some without auxiliary steam engines. Wikipedia says last sail freighter sank in 1945.

        These ships could carry a lot of grain, around a lot of the world carrying grain from Australia via Cape Horn, with a lot of fuel economy. But what finally put them out of service was inability to turn back after they’d sailed.

        Battery and dual-power solve this problem for transit.


  2. What happens if the study recommends rail? Would that become an extension of either Link system? Or is it too early in this process to determine?

    Is the ST3 includes funding for project, correct?

    1. Link is a limited-stop service with stops every 1-2 miles. It can’t replace a local bus route with stops every 0.25-0.5 miles. And ST’s long-term plan, promoted by the Pierce delegation, is to continue southwest to Tacoma Mall. That’s incompatible with a Pacific Avenue alignment. Also Central Link would much more expensive than local rail, with at minimum separated lanes like MLK if not elevation, and 400′ platforms for 4-car articulated trains.

    2. ST3 includes a contribution to improve bus service. It’s probably not enough to fully fund BRT, much less rail. However, ST’s long-term plan includes a several-line Tacoma Link, so it’s possible it could be realized that wa, but the ST3 money would not be enough to build it. Also there’s a steep hill south of Tacoma Dome, which would probably have to be tunneled if there’s no way around it.

    3. I will be very surprised if they recommend rail. There just isn’t the density along there to justify it. In Washington State, there are only a handful of places with the density and demand that make sense for rail, and just about all of them are in Seattle. It makes sense to consider all options — I am glad the study is doing that — but considering all options means that it is quite likely they will recommend a bus based system there.

    4. ST3 promised a Pacific Avenue upgrade as an “early return”. A lot of people in east Pierce are complaining that they aren’t getting anything for their ST taxes and want to opt out of the district. So ST will want to show something running on the ground quickly even if it’s small. It won’t want to put the money into studying a rail corridor that will sit on the shelf for ten years until Pierce figures out how to fund construction.

  3. My call?

    1. Wire the Route 1, now running the Route 7 business corridor, Pacific Avenue through CBD, steep climb past Wright Park, busy 6th Street to TCC Transit Center.

    2. Start reserving lanes wherever easy, intensifying along with development.

    3. Dual power all the way through Roy to Yelm as ridership demands.

    Heavy loads, huge possibilities.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Wiring any route in Pierce County would require a massive investment in new vehicles, since we do not currently have any ETBs. The study area focuses on the south branch of route 1 (Pac Ave), not the west branch (6th Ave). The route takes a left at the Roy Y, so in order to serve Roy and Yelm, it would have to cut out a portion of the existing route. More people would lose service from that one mile cut than would gain it from the more than five mile trek to Roy.

      1. It would be totally stupid to go to Roy. There is no need for it. There are no jobs that would benefit from it, there would be no ridership on it, and it would be a waste of time.

    2. Wiring is a has-been solution for electrification. Just use battery-electric busses instead.

    1. Swift is also limited- stop. I think the goal is to upgrade the 1 (the one-digit routes were intended to be frequent), not add an overlay. The quote from Mather mentions improving frequency, not serving only the major stops. So it would be like RapidRide, not Swift.

  4. While a higher speed service is great, I’m often wondering if an overlay line is the best approach. Are there mid-route deviations that would benefit the riders? Is there a through route opportunity in Downtown Tacoma to serve in two directions rather than one? Should the southern end turn towards Lakewood or Puyallup and forgo the segment through Spanaway?

    1. The existing route is a through-route through downtown, but the study only focuses on one side of the route. I don’t know if the plan is to split the route or keep the same buses running on the whole thing. The only beneficial deviation that is not within walking distance is the Tacoma Dome Station. Turning the south end toward Lakewood would eliminate service to not only Spanaway, but much of Parkland as well. Turning to Puyallup would either (at 112th) eliminate the same service as going to Lakewood while entering Puyallup in a round-about manner, or (at 72nd) eliminate service to Midland, Parkland, Spanaway, and some of the South End of Tacoma. Even if this is done as an overlay instead of changing the existing route, it still avoids benefits to the communities that are skipped. Lakewood-Puyallup via Parkland is currently served by route 4, and there is a timed transfer at 112th & Pacific between the 4 and the 1. This project will likely improve the quality of that transfer, thus helping people travel between Lakewood/Puyallup and anywhere along the 1’s path, north or south of 112th.

      One of the few advantages to our current transit system in Pierce County is that it is gridded. Turning the 1 (or any overlay service) would diminish that advantage. Furthermore, the 1 is our highest-frequency route at 15 minutes during the peaks and mid-day. 15 minutes! Increased frequency is important, and an overlay line that does not serve the same area will not help with that.

      1. What is the design concept for this corridor? Is it to merely have more bus capacity with signal priority, and add nicer shelters but not remove stops? Is it to add transit-only lanes and/or paid fare areas?

        Just calling it “High Capacity Transit” suggests that the question is only about buses versus rail. The answer is clearly buses! It seems that a better question to prioritize is to design the preferred stops and frequencies — and then look at the technology.

        For example, an extension of Tacoma Link on this corridor could make sense, but only if stops were removed and only if it stopped short of the Spanaway terminus and possibly if there was at least one intermodal station anchor including parking.

        If the intent is to better design and more frequently operate an existing route, then PT should forgo this study and jump right into street and signal engineering at congested spots.

      2. “Just calling it “High Capacity Transit” suggests that the question is only about buses versus rail.”

        No, it’s about some unspecified level of service that could be provided by bus or rail. “HCT” is the term officials use when they don’t want to commit to the mode yet. In my earlier comments I didn’t pay enough attention to the “HCT” part; I thought this was just spending the ST3 “early deliverables” money, but maybe it’s a larger project than that.

        I looked up ST’s long-range plan and it has an “HCT corridor from downtown Tacoma to Parkland”. The Tacoma Link expansion alternatives in 2013 has 11 potential corridors, including one on Pacific to 128th. This was the study from which the 19th Avenue extension was chosen for ST3, but it dovetails with other plans for a multi-line network converging at Tacoma Dome. So it looks like PT is accelerating this process the way Seattle did for the Ballard-downtown line, to try to make it shovel-ready sooner. It’s possible PT might spend all the ST3 money on planning that, but then it would have to explain how just a plan is an “early deliverable”.

      3. If the intention is to study a Tacoma Link extension, then the study area’s boundaries makes more sense. There’s no need to study downtown or west of it because that line is certain. So the 1 could be replaced by a Pacific-Stadium-19th line, and the 6th Avenue segment assigned to another route. Tacoma Link would make local stops because that’s always been Tacoma Link’s design. So it wouldn’t be an overlay. As for the part south of 128th, it’s probably included to see if it’s feasaable and worthwhile, the way Madison RR considered terminating at 23rd (the original goal) or 28th (an extended goal). So everybody in Spanaway, be on your good density behavior so you can attract the train.

        From Google Maps it looks like Pacific Ave skirts the steep hill, and it’s only an issue if you’re coming from 705. I thought the bus did go up the steep hill but maybe it doesn’t, or maybe it used to but doesn’t anymore.

      4. Rail is unlikely to be used for this corridor partly due to the low density and partly due to the high grade of the (recently redone) Pacific Ave bridge over I-5. BRT is more likely for now, but if the metro area keeps growing and the BRT line helps focus some of Pierce County’s portion of the growth along Pacific Ave, then rail may become a good option in 20-30 years.

    2. “I don’t know if the plan is to split the route or keep the same buses running on the whole thing”

      That may be something the study is to determine. A “study area” is not a route, it’s an area where levels of service are explored. However, since the most likely result is changes to the 1, it will have to address the fact that the 1 currently extends far outside the area. I don’t see them cutting off any neighborhood currently served by the 1 in the study area, except maybe the tail south of 176th. (Is there a rider market there or is it just for operational convenience?) Detouring anywhere would disrupt the usability of this major north-south corridor; which probably has the highest ridership/walkability potential east Tacoma can hope for. It would be like the E detouring to Shoreline CC. The detour to Tacoma Dome Station is already out of the way, but necessary since it’s a major transfer point.

      1. You are hitting on the key issue of an HCT study, Mike. A Tacoma Link extension is probably the most reSonable rail option, as Central Link is too bulky for the corridor and a new line would not be a third light rail technology.

        With that said, is PT willing to force a transfer in an alternative? The scope appears to not allow for this question to be asked. It seems problematic too that the 2013 study is pretty dismissive of rail for this corridor.

        Perhaps the connection to “HCT” in the study name is merely ST3 as you identified. Perhaps the rail question will be dismissed quickly as most rail needs 1500 riders per mile if not more to be viable. If 15 minutes at the productive frequency at peak hours, that is nowhere near high enough to make rail viable for the entire corridor, even if ridership doubled. I can see how some may dream of rail so PT has to pencil out the requirements for political reasons; I hope that this won’t take too much budget so that more relevant bus speeds and reliability designs can be taken further.

      2. Did the evaluation really say the corridor is unsuitable for rail, or it just didn’t make it to the top one because of all the development/social interests pushing for MLK? I would consider Pacific Street within the top three transit corridors in Pierce County.

  5. Truncate and split the route at Tacoma Dome Station. If you are heading downtown, you should be hopping on the Tacoma Link, not a bus. Having two shorter routes (remember, Route 1 continues west along 6th Ave to TCC), will improve reliability. Having BAT lanes and bus signal priority would certainly be a cost-effective measure on this corridor. PT needs all the cost-effective measures it can find, especially with the poor service levels throughout their system. They need to build routes with strong ridership and frequent headways at the lowest cost possible to help build public support so they can actually pass a transit levy.

    1. Route 1 used to be two routes, Rt 25 and Rt 46, but Pierce Transit in its infinite wisdom decided to make it their first ‘Super Route” with through running on one timetable. I’ve ridden the 1 many many times. Delays are caused mainly by riders, and traffic. It is simply getting busier and busier out that way, Pierce County has greenlit scads of developments and not improved the road structure to handle it. Hate to say it, but what is really needed is a freeway-level facility that runs roughly along Canyon Rd to handle all the commuters. People that live out there like to be able to come and go when they please, and unless you ran buses every 5 minutes 24 hours a day on all routes you’d be hard pressed to get them out of their cars.

      Pierce County is larger than just the PBTA. There is a _LOT_ of Pierce County that is not served by it. And those are the people that use Pacific Ave, Canyon Rd, and Meridian Ave to commute north.

    2. The 1 was created in the wave of Tiger grants that jump-started Swift and RapidRide. I been in Tacoma here-again, there-again over the years but I don’t know it extensively enough to say whether a unified Pacific/6th corridor is important, or seemed important at the time, or was just to spread the grant benefits to both corridors. It’s possible that increasing congestion has invalidated the corridor, the way the 174 to Federal Way was just too long. However, if it’s split, they should overlap downtown, like the 45 and 48 do in the U-District. That’s how to have a strong anchor to two strong routes.

    3. 1. Canyon Road: one of the lowest-density corridors inside the UGA. No, please don’t waste our valuable and scarce transit dollars there.

      2.This is functionally two routes. While overlap would be nice, the best use of our money is to either eliminate the turnoff to Tacoma Dome and route directly downtown, or to truncate at Tacoma Dome and have riders use Tacoma Link for the remaining mile in to downtown. Given that so many of Tacoma’s transit network is on 30 minute headways at rush hour, if this corridor can afford good frequency,
      and priority timing at signals, commuters should be happy to do a quick transfer to the miniature light rail. In the coming years as Tacoma Link is extended to St Joe via Stadium, the utility of truncating routes (such as the west leg of Route 1, and Routes 2, 57, 28, 11, 16, and 13) will start to make more sense logistically. We should already be truncating 63, 500, 501, 400, 41, 42, and south leg of Route 1 at the Tacoma Dome Station, in my opinion. There’s no need to clog bus stops with multiple buses running to the far corners of the city and county when there is a single rail line running the exact same corridor. Use the savings to increase frequencies on the routes that would benefit the most from improvement by potentially increased ridership. Moreover, increase ridership on Tacoma Link enough to induce a need for every 6 minute headways instead of every 12 minutes, making it easier for a transfer.

      3. A “unified” corridor does not make any sense at all. It’s as though they coupled two unrelated corridors that happen to have similar frequencies and happen to meet downtown, changed the name and decided it was a single route. Like deciding that the 255 and the 101 both terminate in downtown Seattle and have similar frequencies, so we should couple them and call it a Number One!

      1. “A “unified” corridor does not make any sense at all”

        It might if a large percent of people are going between the primary area in east Tacoma and the primary area in west Tacoma, or to all the stops in the central part. That’s what I don’t know. It’s not at all like the 255 and 101, which are quasi-express routes to two areas that have little to do with each other. It’s more like the 28/131 through-route, which I used to dismiss because what’s the likelyhood that somebody on 4th Ave S is going to 8th Ave NW rather than anywhere else in north Seattle? But over the years I’ve realized that it does serve a variety of trip pairs, where a route from somewhere in north Seattle to somewhere in south Seattle at least gets you to the right district, and depending on your origin it can be just as easy to transfer in Fremont than downtown. A through route allows you to transfer anywhere, whereas a split route would require you to go downtown and transfer, and if your origin is just a mile or two away from the split (e.g., SLU) then too bad for you. It also minimizes buses laying over downtown, which is a big problem in downtown Seattle and may become a problem in downtown Tacoma.

      2. Mike Orr, I would be surprised if a large proportion of riders is riding “through,” although I could be wrong. Most people here just drive everywhere, things are scattered, so there aren’t distinct patterns. That being said, I understand your point with downtown layovers and agree that it could be a problem, and through routing is one solution. The better solution, in my opinion, is to use Tacoma Link as a “bridge” through downtown and layover at either end, Tacoma Dome on the South and the Theater District (soon Stadium District/St Joe on the north/west) as a layover area. As mentioned, it creates a transfer, but in Tacoma you are lucky if you get better than 30 minute headways at rush hour, so a transfer to a fast and frequent trolley shouldn’t be a big deal.

      3. Tacoma has a lower threshold for driving than Seattle. If you make transit the least-bit difficult by terminating just short of downtown, going past Sounder without going to it, or transferring to a shuttle at the periphery of downtown, people will drive rather than put up with it. The transit-dependent will have no choice, but we’re trying to attract choice riders. When a city has a small population and a tiny dense area, things that work in a large city with expensive parking, don’t. work there

  6. Nathan, pretty sure library in Tacoma, and for sure tenth floor in Seattle, have pictures of marginally employed cows watching interurbans go by under wire on arterials that look pretty much like SR7. There also used to be a streetcar line to Steilacoom.

    But probably the pre-49 Route 7 re-emerging. Can’t resist trolley-wiring past Wright Park and along 6th AVENUE (any logic between street-avenue assignments in Tacoma?). Because a few blocks’ trolleywire into CPS, and a couple more from IDS to Rainier via Dearborn- which Metro really did plan to do if it’d had $12 million more- and we could’ve hit 62nd and Prentiss.

    From where two switches and a half block of wire could have trailed into fast, straight wire to Renton. Would still be driving it whether or not I lived to see it. But doubt the proposed project has an urgent time-line.


    1. Sure, and the interurban also existed at a time when roads were nowhere near as developed as they are now. The interurban also ran between two population centers (Tacoma and Seattle) at the same time there was still the Mosquito Fleet sailing Puget Sound, and the main road was Military Road.

      Just because the Interurnan ran through farmland does not mean that that is where it terminated, there is no correlation here. I don’t know if you have been to Roy recently, but the main feature downtown is the disused Wilcox feed mill, and about 5 small stores. And once you get out of ‘downtown’, most of the houses are way far apart. It would take you an hour and a half to get home once you got off your High Capacity Bus/Train/Ferry/Airplane if you dont live in one of the hundred or so houses that are in Roy.

      1. Nathan, this posting was the reason I went through Yelm and Roy on my way to coffee in Tacoma this morning. Really looking for through-the-windshield comparisons with my old regular office, the Route 7.

        I don’t think the Roy chamber of commerce would permit the south terminal of the Route 1 in town. Though I would accept the verdict of the staff at Cowgirls’ Espresso. But since I first saw this region in 1974, only question is when Roy will become the next new sprawled mall in the county.

        When I moved to Olympia in January 2014, even at height of morning rush, the 603 was on time to History Museum Route 1 stop on Pacific. Now, if I’m not across the Nisqually by 5:30 am, best I can do is a half-hour extra driving through Lacey to minimize unavoidable delay at Mounts Road.

        Can be fifteen minutes more to Dupont central exit, on way to pretty much stop-free one hour drive through Steilacoom to 26th Avenue to Wright Park. Tacoma Dome five minutes more downhill.

        That railroad along the fort could help a lot on a road too narrow for diamond lanes. So good idea to know it’s there, and make some plans how to use it when time comes. Based on last four, I give Roy eight to ten years before Roy will wish they could ride it.

        So it’s good to see some attention to this line for the future. Will always prefer getting some transit rolling soon as possible, and building and intensifying it by stages, than thirty years of lines and dots on flip charts before first mile of rail. But guarantee: By then, no chance of hitting a cow.


  7. Should this study include looking at a short, one-station extension of Link from Tacoma Dome to Pacific Avenue around 25th or 26th Street? It seems to me that not making this corridor jog to the Tacoma Dome Station would really help its performance, and that this 1/3-mile extension of the funded Link Line to intersect with Pacific Avenue would put much of Downtown Tacoma (especially UWT) within easier walking distance of the main Link line.

    1. That gap has always bothered me. It should properly be part of the Central Link project. I almost like that idea, except that it would create a gap between Tacoma Link and Sounder, and that won’t fly since Tacoma Link is Sounder’s last mile to downtown Tacoma. But PT could recommend paying more attention to this predicament, and say it needs a creative solution rather than just idling on the default plan. It should properly be part of the Central Link project, and since the Tacoma Extension EIS isn’t done yet I think, I guess there’s still time to consider it.

      1. I wouldn’t see the need to truncate the existing Tacoma Link at this location. It could remain exactly where it is and end at Tacoma Dome. There appears to be only one at-grade track anyway, and Central Link would require much better. Instead, I would suggest that two new grade-separated tracks with a center platform station would be built to accommodate this short Central Link extension. I see nothing wrong with having two stations that have loading for both Link and Tacoma Link.

        The only missing direct connection would seem to be between a Pacific Avenue Route and Sounder. However, Link would provide a frequent alternative to that. Further, I suspect that most riders from a Pacific Avenue bus wanting to go to Seattle will simply switch to Central Link anyway and wouldn’t need that connection.

        One could argue that it would take some riders away from Tacoma Link. It probably would — but it would also create an improved anchor for the south end of Downtown Tacoma that could be leveraged to new high-rise TOD around there, cancelling out any ridership loss to Tacoma Link.

  8. Whenever they use this sort of euphemism, it means they will do nothing of any value.

    If they were going to make better buses, they’d call it “exclusive bus lanes”.

    If they were going to make real high capacity transit, they’d call it “rail”.

    Chuck it in the bin — this is simply consultant feed and will not produce anything real.

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