The once ambitious restructure of bus service between Seattle and the Eastside over SR 520 has been reduced in scope and is expected only to include a truncation of Metro 255 service at UW.
At last Thursday’s King County Regional Transit Committee meeting, Metro staff confirmed that Sound Transit no longer intends to propose any changes to their routes on the corridor. Peak-only Metro routes from the Eastside will also continue to serve downtown. The original restructure proposal had included ten routes, of which the greatest ridership is on Metro 255 from Kirkland and Sound Transit 545 from Redmond.
The reduced scope of the restructure comes against the background of increased optimism about downtown bus movements during the ‘period of maximum constraint’. The removal of more than 800 daily trips from the downtown transit tunnel and construction elsewhere in downtown would strain street capacity and slow transit service without mitigating measures.
The One Center City partners plan several changes to improve downtown capacity without removing so many buses from downtown. On 5th and 6th Avenues, a new northbound transit pathway can serve up to 40 buses an hour (though more likely 25-30 buses). Likely routes on this pathway are peak routes including 74, 76, 77, 301, 308, 316, 311, 252, 257.
On 4th and 2nd Avenues, signal and priority changes will speed bus movements and give pedestrians leading signals improving safety when crossing. On 3rd Ave, all door boarding and all-day bus operations will speed operations there. Through travel for cars will be prohibited during day time hours, but cars will still be permitted to turn right on to the street and must turn right off the street after one block. SDOT, Metro and Sound Transit are sharing in the $30 million cost of street improvements downtown and in Montlake.
Together, these steps allow buses to operate more effectively than they do today through downtown, with up to 25% better travel times on 4th Ave. The added pathway on 5th and 6th alleviates pressure on all avenues. Bus passenger capacity across downtown would increase by 3700 in the PM peak hour, and overall people-moving capacity by all modes would grow by 7500 per hour.
With greater downtown capacity, early proposals to truncate ST 550 at International District station, to route West Seattle buses to First Hill, and to loop route 41 on Pike/Pine, have all been shelved.
If a 255 restructure is approved, buses from the Eastside arriving at UW station will stop in front of the station on Montlake Blvd. After the stop, a new signal arrangement will hold car traffic so buses can turn left across Montlake Blvd onto Pacific Place before proceeding to University District. Buses to the Eastside will use Pacific Place to access a new southbound stop on Montlake Blvd across from the station.
This reduces the number of street crossings for a round trip with bus-rail transfers from three to just one (and riders can use the pedestrian bridge for that one crossing). Transfer times will be reduced by an average four minutes each way.
Those who will be most disappointed at the reduced restructure are Eastside riders to South Lake Union. Option C from the 2017 outreach included several new routes to SLU, replacing existing service to downtown Seattle. Because I-5 lacks a freeway exit that allows the transit agencies to serve SLU on the way to downtown Seattle, added service to SLU necessarily means an exchange of service hours from downtown routes. It’s unlikely Eastside riders will see more service to SLU, and they will also lose the Metro 255 stops on Stewart as that route is truncated to UW station.
Many Redmond riders will note the missed opportunity to add more frequent service on their often crowded buses.
Routing Metro 255 to UW frees up abundant service hours and the next round of outreach will explore options for deploying those hours. Route 255 has about 68,000 annual hours today, some 20-25,000 of which would be conserved by having the bus not proceed all the way through downtown. The delays if it were moved from the tunnel to service streets would add an estimated 8,700 hours. All of those hours will be available for improving Kirkland service.
The options outlined in last year’s public outreach invested those hours into improved frequency and more service to Kirkland on evening and weekends. More frequent cross-lake service alleviates overcrowding on the busiest part of the route. It also reduces wait times for transfers.
The City of Kirkland is recommending more frequent service on routes that connect to the 255. Kirkland also seeks a simplification of the 255 routes which currently operates in three flavors. A peak-only version operates between Seattle and downtown Kirkland. There are two all-day versions, half of which goes to Totem Lake transit center, and half to Kingsgate P&R and Brickyard P&R. Kirkland is requesting a single flavor including service to Brickyard.
The Kirkland recommendation is better for riders from low-frequency connecting routes and for riders from North Kirkland where 255 service is less frequent. There is particular sensitivity to current two-seat riders who will have a three-seat trip if the 255 goes to UW. But it expends more resources into places with low demand. The 255 segment to Brickyard has such low ridership that Metro has attempted to eliminate it at least three times in recent years (the cancelled Metro service cuts in 2013; the cancelled U-Link Eastside restructure in 2015; and under either alternative offered in 2017.
Kirkland has also asked that ST 540, currently serving downtown Kirkland to UW, run to South Lake Union instead. That may be a popular option for riders, particularly as other opportunities to reach SLU from the Eastside have been dropped from the restructure. With just 18 runs each way per day, the available service hours are limited however.
A round of public outreach is expected this Spring to inform the final service decisions. The King County Council will approve the final service proposal early in 2019, and implementation is anticipated before the closure of the transit tunnel, expected in Fall 2019.