The One Center City (OCC) Advisory Group, tasked with developing a plan to increase mobility in central Seattle during the impending period of maximum constraint, released its recommendations for near term capital projects in June. The plan must still be approved by the Seattle City Council and other stakeholders.
Early discussions proposed transformational changes downtown and large-scale bus service restructuring, neither of which materialized in the final list of projects and improvements.
The OCC group was formed in order to proactively keep megaproject-related pain to a minimum over the course of 2019-21. During that time, Highway 99 will move from the viaduct to the new deep-bore tunnel, the Washington State Convention Center expansion will close critical parts of the grid, a critical bridge in South Lake Union will be closed and rebuilt, and the transit tunnel will close to buses forever.
5th and 6th Avenue northbound lanes; 4th and 2nd Avenue improvements
The most significant changes that the OCC group endorsed are northbound transit-only lanes on 5th and 6th Avenues. Some Metro routes will move to those streets from 4th, while Community Transit and Sound Transit buses would remain in their original configuration.
The hope is that the 4th Avenue buses will benefit from a lower volume of bus traffic. SDOT would also invest in queue jumping and signal priority for buses on both 2nd and 4th. However, since overall traffic on all downtown streets is expected to increase during the period of maximum constraint, the gains for 4th Avenue buses might be marginal.
The OCC group punted on major proposals
In addition to its mitigation work, OCC also had an ambitious mandate to transform central Seattle. SDOT documents from the beginning of the process called for a “20 year vision” and corresponding action plan.
The group has not presented a plan along those lines, but the latest OCC documents indicate that the vision plan process has only just begun. A slide in the latest OCC deck includes a new name and slogan for the advisory group formerly known as One Center City: “Imagine Downtown: Big Ideas for the Heart of Seattle.” The deck also suggests that a similar plan from Auckland, New Zealand will serve as the model for the Imagine Downtown report.
Some of the more ambitious projects mentioned in early OCC discussions included constructing a protected bike lane on 4th Avenue, and transforming 5th Avenue into a transit mall along the lines of 3rd Avenue. The 5th Avenue project won’t go forward, as advisory group members were concerned that 5th Avenue might become a magnet for sidewalk crowding and petty crime, along the lines of 3rd. The 4th Avenue bike project was postponed until 2021.
Bus restructures no, UW and ID Station improvements yes
Another significant idea that planners dropped was a major restructure of Eastside, Snohomish, and Pierce-to-downtown buses. A restructure would have diverted some buses to the Husky Stadium Link station, and terminated some intercity routes at ID/Chinatown station and the north end of downtown, according to a January 2017 OCC document.
According to Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer, Sound Transit and Metro chose to drop the large-scale restructure: “Some of the factors that resulted in the original OCC service revision concept proposals being eliminated… [included] customer impacts, timing relative to other service change discussions, and technical reasons.”
However, in advance of potential future service revisions, the Husky Stadium station’s transfer environment would be reworked. The plan would implement all-door boarding, wayfinding improvements, and bus stops closer to the Link station’s entrance.
The ID/Chinatown station hub would see improved bus stops in the area, with longer bus zones, improved lighting, and signage.
Offboard payment and extended bus-only hours on 3rd Avenue
The most significant transit improvement of the OCC action plan is an investment in the 3rd Avenue transit mall. OCC recommended that ORCA readers be installed at all ten 3rd Avenue stops that do not currently have them.
OCC also recommended that 3rd Avenue’s partial ban on private cars should be extended to 6 AM to 7 PM, eliminating the midday gap.
There were some discussions of making the ban all day, seven days per week, but they did not progress very far. Some OCC members were concerned about the impacts on deliveries for merchants, and access to parking garage entrances on the street that predate the transit mall.
3rd Avenue will see a higher volume of bus traffic than ever before, since the transit tunnel will be closed to bus traffic starting in March 2019.
Limited changes in advance of the period of maximum constraint
In all, while there will be some substantial improvements to downtown transit mobility, the OCC group mostly opted to maintain the status quo. Transformational projects like the 4th Avenue bike lane, the 5th Avenue transit mall, and a permanent car ban on 3rd Avenue, fell victim to political pressures and leadership chaos. The Center City Connector streetcar on 1st Avenue is also under pressure, as Mayor Jenny Durkan halted construction over cost concerns. The ultimate fate of the streetcar is not yet decided.
Sound Transit and Metro were hesitant to introduce restructures that would compel Eastside riders to transfer at UW and give up single seat trips to downtown. Rider response to that idea was overwhelmingly negative. Merchants and downtown leaders were skeptical of the major projects, while bike and transit activists were more enthusiastic.
The process was also handicapped by the chaos at City Hall: the OCC process was roughly concurrent with the scandal that brought down Mayor Ed Murray, and Seattle saw four mayors over the course of the group’s deliberations. SDOT was also hamstrung by former director Scott Kubly’s own scandal, and the fact that the agency still does not have a permanent head. There was never a consistent set of priorities that the city’s political leadership advocated for.
So, in the end, downtown Seattle will see limited changes before crunch time starts this fall.