On March 30 of this year, Mayor Durkan suspended the streetcar expansion project known as the Central City Connector, or CCC. In a statement released three months later, the mayor asked SDOT to “evaluate additional mobility alternatives in order to understand the transportation benefits that would accrue from either a streetcar or an alternative mode of transit”. Here are a couple of ideas for alternatives.
The CCC in Brief
The CCC would add five new stops along First Avenue, and connect the two existing streetcar lines. For much of the 1.2 mile addition, the streetcar would run in its own center lane. The initial service plan consists of overlapping the two existing lines, so that the streetcars would run more often on First Avenue. Since each streetcar line would run every ten minutes during peak, that would enable five minute frequency in the shared segment. It is important to note that the peak five minute service is only average. Since the trains will start at two different spots and the First Hill train is routinely delayed, it is likely that you will see waits that are longer than five minutes, even during peak.
A short distance, looping route like the completed streetcar line is sometimes called a circulator, and is often found in small cities and towns that lack an extensive transit network. In addition to the overall loop, the First Hill segment makes an additional button hook before it reaches downtown. Both circulators in general and routes that are short, squiggly and looping are often criticized by transit professionals. The particulars are complicated, but the basic problem is that it doesn’t make sense to use it for longer trips, since it doubles back on itself. For example, even if the CCC is completed, it will be faster to walk from Yesler Terrace to First Avenue than use the streetcar. That means that a rider from First Hill who is headed to somewhere on First Avenue could get off the train, walk several blocks, and then take the exact same streetcar as it caught up to them. This sort of circuitous routing means that people will find better, more straightforward transit options for their trips.
The first alternative is fairly simple: Take the right of way granted for the CCC project, but run buses there instead. Buses with doors on both sides would have to be used, which means running the so called RapidRide+ routes on First Avenue. There are several possible routes, but I think the 7 and 70 would be ideal (these are referred to as Corridor 3 and 7 in the RapidRide+ documents). Send them both over to First Avenue in an overlapping manner (similar to the proposed streetcar service plan). The combined service (along First Avenue) would be better, because each line is very popular right now (unlike the existing streetcars) and already has more frequent service than the proposed streetcar.
The routing would also connect to more places. Unlike the streetcar routing, any trip along there makes sense (trips like Eastlake to Pioneer Square or Rainier Avenue to Pike Place). Thus there would not only be more frequent service along First Avenue, but more frequent service to more places. Buses would enable faster, more consistent operations. A bus can avoid an obstacle, and the city can more easily and cheaply make improvements to reduce bottlenecks with bus routes.
One of the big advantages to this approach is cost. It isn’t cheap to build the center platforms and purchase the dual sided buses, but it is still cheaper than adding rail. But the big savings come from the operations. This would cost almost nothing to operate, as these buses have to travel from one end of downtown to the other anyway.
BAT Lane Bus Alternative
The second proposal is even simpler. Just add BAT lanes along First Avenue, and move a few buses over there. There are plenty of buses that could easily use First Avenue, while retaining very good connections to other parts of downtown. BAT lanes are not ideal — cars can clog a lane while turning right — but it is still a big improvement over regular traffic. Fourth Avenue carries dozens of buses in BAT lanes, and it functions without major problems. It is likely that the maneuverability, added frequency and better routing of buses would more than make up for the difference between BAT lanes and exclusive transit lanes.
This alternative could be implemented very quickly. Over time, this alternative could easily evolve into the other one, as we purchase more buses with dual sided doors.
My own preference is for the first approach. Running dual sided buses on First Avenue (in a center lane) makes a lot of sense given the amount of effort that has gone into this project. It is quite possible that grant money could be transferred as it was when Providence switched from a streetcar to BRT. Rides would be faster, more frequent and connect to more places. But even just using BAT lanes and regular buses would be a step up from the proposed plan, and it could be done very quickly, for very little money.
The mayor is soliciting input with this project. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.