Community Transit’s near-term plans prioritize frequency and connections

Community Transit is preparing for more Swift lines in the next few years

With Lynnwood Link construction underway, Community Transit has less than five years to prepare for major changes to Snohomish County’s transit landscape. The draft of their latest six-year transit development plan is out for public comment and describes some of the upcoming challenges and priorities for the agency up to the 2024 restructure.

Last year, Community Transit buses and vanpools provided 10.6 million boardings, averaging just under 37,500 on weekdays for fixed-route buses. The agency expects this figure to grow to 14.4 million passenger trips by 2024 with the implementation of more frequent service and the opening of the next Swift line. Community Transit scheduled 412,364 total service hours in 2018, and is expected to use 566,864 by 2024 after several service expansions.

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News roundup: bonfire of the Limebikes

Bikes and Transit
Paul Kimo McGregor/Flickr

This is an open thread.

First of several weekend Link closures start this weekend

The new platform at Pioneer Square Station takes shape (SounderBruce)

Sound Transit:

Trains will run as usual between SODO-Angle Lake and Capitol Hill-UW, with three-car trains every 10 minutes during most hours of the day. Free bus shuttles will run every 7 minutes in groups of two buses at a time, serving SODO, Stadium, International District/Chinatown, Pioneer Square, University Street, Westlake and Capitol Hill.

Plan accordingly. Weekend closures will happen again from Oct 25-28 and Nov 8-11. This is all in preparation for Connect 2020, the project to tie East Link (a.k.a. the Blue Line) in with the downtown tunnel.

WSDOT is also closing the westbound lanes of the SR 520 Floating Bridge over the weekend to prepare for several years of Montlake construction. Bus routes using the bridge will detour via Interstate 90 and will skip some stops, so check the Metro Alerts page. Eastbound service will use all normal stops, but may be affected because of the longer trip times.

Red paint coming to Olive Way

Weather permitting, this weekend SDOT will install a full-time bus lane on Olive Way between 4th Avenue and 8th Avenue. This will help 39 major regional bus routes from Metro, Sound Transit and Community Transit. SDOT estimates these routes combine for 33,000 daily riders.

You may recall that this stretch of downtown was where bus lane violations had gotten so bad that a frustrated bus rider recently took matters into her own hands to kick the cars out, prompting a follow-up citizen action from Seattle Greenways the following week.

Hopefully the paint will make such actions less necessary. Passing automatic camera enforcement legislation in Olympia would also help.

Roosevelt-Eastlake BRT is officially RapidRide J

Atomic Taco (Flickr)

SDOT and Metro are kicking off another feedback session for the newly-named RapidRide J, formerly known as Roosevelt-Eastlake BRT. The route combines pieces of Metro Routes 67 and 70 to provide service through South Lake Union, Eastlake, the University District, and Roosevelt, terminating at the Roosevelt Link station.

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Light Rail on the 520 Bridge?

Things are getting busy on the Eastside. Light rail tracks and guideways are popping up around Bellevue and Redmond, in a preview of the future of transit on the Eastside. But with the June closure of the Montlake freeway station, SR 520 is about to get busy as well. And with Metro considering various options for truncating 520 bus service at UW Station to take advantage of our existing light rail network, the old life of transit on 520 as an Eastside-downtown workhorse may be finally coming to a close.

Some of this has been a long time coming. Ever since the plan to connect Redmond and Bellevue to Seattle with East Link was approved, the days of the frequent 545 route to downtown Seattle were numbered. Once planning for U-Link restructures began, planners belatedly realized the potential utility in removing buses from downtown in favor of a UW Link transfer, a plan that has (to date) nothing to show for it except evening and weekend 542 service (and even that was likely only done because of the closure of the Montlake freeway station).

There have been various discussions on how to use SR 520 for transit in the long term. Sound transit 2 envisioned a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network, which has apparently devolved into more frequency on the most popular bus routes on the bridge already. There have also naturally been discussions on building light rail on SR-520, becoming more relevant since WSDOT has kept the option of light rail on 520 in consideration in recent designs (realistically meaning that the rail could be build without needing to demolish and reconstruct the main spans of the bridge). Seattle Subway has had shifting opinions on this, at one point favoring a new light rail bridge from Kirkland to Sand Point, then coming around to proposing light rail on 520 and connecting the line to a real First Hill subway.

Though the possibility of light rail on SR 520 is exciting and would dramatically transform how commuters in the Eastside get to Seattle, it’s easy to forget how large of a project that is and how far off it would be. Sound Transit is pushing the limits of its building ability with Sound Transit 3, meaning that work on a 520 line would likely extend well past the 2041 timeframe of the last ST3 projects. Further complicating matters is that construction beyond this point is facing fierce competition from other priorities, such as Ballard-UW, extensions of the planned Ballard and West Seattle lines, and filling holes in our network in First Hill and Belltown. With light rail coming to I-90, many will view an additional line on 520 as redundant and unnecessary. With many (and ofter better) projects competing for resources, it’s hard to think that SR 520 will get light rail on any reasonable timeframe.

The good news? I actually don’t believe that light rail on the 520 bridge is necessary at this point, for a few reasons:

  1. The bridge itself does not have a dedicated bus lane, but it does have the next best thing: HOV 3+ lanes. Convincing WSDOT to convert an HOV 2 lane to HOV 3 is like pulling teeth, but the 520 bridge has them today. Furthermore, all vehicles (including HOV 3+) are subject to a toll, which is an additional incentive to get people to take transit across the bridge, or to take I-90 instead if they must drive (both of which leave more room on the bridge for buses).
  2. There are already two left-side freeway stations on SR-520 between I-405 and the bridge, where light rail would be should we decide to build it. These stations, as they stand today, are almost as high quality from a bus priority and access standpoint as it is possible to build. To access them, buses exit from an existing HOV 3+ lane into a dedicated bus-only lane that extends through both freeway stations all the way to the bridge!
  3. There is direct HOV and bus access at 108th Ave NE, allowing buses from S. Kirkland and Bellevue (both future light rail connection points) to enter the freeway in the HOV 3+ lanes.
  4. Starting this year, SDOT is pouring money into a redesigned Montlake boulevard/SR 520 interchange that has direct HOV 3 access and inline bus stops, that UW-bound buses can use to avoid the long queue of cars at the general purpose ramp.
  5. SDOT is building a reversible direct access access ramp from the SR 520 HOV 3+ lanes to the I-5 express lanes, which will continue as a fifth express lane until Mercer Street, which will be a direct entrance/exit to South Lake Union. When ramp opens in 2023, it will be bus only to start (though it’s unclear why HOVs would be initially excluded), with HOV access coming later. This completely solves an issue that has been puzzling transit planners for years, who have been contemplating painfully circuitous routing to try to directly serve SLU while avoiding a slow downtown. The interim solution is a decent-but-not-ideal route 544, which gets off at the first downtown exit it can safely reach, and heads up a relatively non-congested Fairview avenue, avoiding Mercer Street like the plague.
  6. There are lower-quality right-side freeway stations in Redmond at NE 40th and NE 51st streets, in the vicinity of Microsoft and East Link stations. Though sub-optimal, these stations are past the biggest bottleneck (namely the bridge), and have the benefit of an unusual right-side HOV 2 lane running from I-405 to just north of NE 51st street (with breaks in it to allow SOVs to access freeway exits).

While this may not be the 520 universe you might build from scratch, the fact that this is all already happening and will be fully complete by 2024 with no tax increases, ballot measures, and fights over tunnels is something to be taken full advantage of, rather than torn up to squeeze light rail into. To that end, I propose a comprehensive network of SR-520 buses that serve places all over the east side, combining to form a “virtual light rail line” across 520 that could take advantage of every piece of HOV and bus priority to be nearly as fast as an actual light rail line.

Here are the route maps for peak, off-peak, and downtown Seattle peak detail.

Here are some broad themes:

  1. Though this can be nearly as fast as rail would be, it still would probably be somewhat unreliable (though this could be mitigated with some schedule padding at strategic locations). It also has much less capacity than light rail, which is stretched today by peak-level demand on the 541/542. This is primarily mitigated by high frequency service, where there are multiple branches (4 peak, 3 off-peak) that are all frequent on their own, overlapping on 520 creating very frequent service (2.5 minutes peak, 5 minutes off-peak).
  2. Bellevue is getting express service to UW. This is significant because Sound Transit currently plans on having riders from Bellevue to UW take the blue line south through downtown Seattle (a hefty 29 minutes). Though they need to draw the line somewhere, I feel this puts Bellevue at the point of highest inconvenience, and many riders (especially those heading to places north on Link) will be turned off by needing to do a large amount of backtracking.
  3. Sammamish would be well-connected to the regional transportation network, with nearly every destination being two seats or fewer away. North and south Sammamish service is now split at S. Sammamish P&R, where the north route takes the 520 bridge and the south route takes the I-90 bridge. There is no longer a dedicated Sammamish route, as now the Redmond and Issaquah routes simply continue to Sammamish at half frequency, eliminating the need to transfer. This makes Sammamish, which (not incorrectly, in my opinion) felt like a non-consideration in ST3, less of an afterthought by making some sensible tweaks to bus service that already terminates near Sammamish.
  4. South Lake Union is a major destination, which is served during peak by the Redmond lines during (the Kirkland/Bellevue lines go to UW during peak, and all lines go to UW during off-peak). Since the ramp to the I-5 express lanes/Mercer street is reversible, only going one direction at a time, the configuration proposed has a loop through downtown (ideally with a 5-10 minute layover somewhere downtown for buffer time) that starts at SLU and goes counter-clockwise in the morning, and starts at downtown going clockwise in the evening. This ensures that all 520 bus trips (both SLU and UW) have a connection to Link (Westlake and UW, respectively).

Overall, this would require a big increase in service hours, so realistically this kind of thing might be tied to a 2024 ST4 vote, in which ST could fund all these lines. But for the time being, I’ve proposed a Metro/ST split that flips the agency of some existing lines:

  • The 555/556 would be replaced by the 254, and Metro would operate this route.
  • The 269 and all the peak Sammamish and Bear Creek Seattle expresses would be replaced by the 543 (peak), 546 (off-peak), and the extended half of 554 trips, all of which ST would operate.

Here are some details by route:

  • 255: The same 255 from Kirkland to UW that is coming in March 2020. Peak headways: 10-12 minutes (slightly worse than 2020), midday/weekend: 15 minutes (same as 2020), evening: 30 minutes (same as 2020)
  • 254: A new route similar to the 555/556 that replaces both, and provides all-day service from UW to S. Kirkland, Bellevue TC, Eastgate and Bellevue College. S. Kirkland P&R is added because Sound Transit operates the 555/556 along 112th Ave NE instead of I-405, believing it to be faster, so adding a stop at S. Kirkland to this route is relatively non-disruptive (because it’s already on the road to S. Kirkland P&R anyway). This route also continues to Bellevue College and Eastgate, since this idea opens up the possibility of giving Bellevue College & Eastgate a fast ride to Bellevue TC all-day, and I don’t believe this route needs to continue to Issaquah (since the 554 will be more frequent by this point). My preferred routing has it take NE 6th to I-90 (utilizing the express toll lanes available in 2024), but this requires using the right-side exits to switch between 405 and 90, so routing along Bellevue Way or the 271 route (with no stops between BTC and BC) may be more sensible. Truncating the 271 in Medina (ideally at one of the freeway stations, and not cross the bridge to Seattle) could partially pay for this route. Peak headways are 10-12 minutes, midday/weekend: 15 minutes, evening: 30 minutes.
  • 544: A variant of the 544 coming in 2020, except more resembling the 545. This route would replace the 545, and would serve downtown Redmond and Redmond TC (rather than Overlake P&R). There would be no stop at S. Kirkland P&R (but an added route 254 would ease transfers to this route from S.Kirkland). It would serve SLU using the previously described loop (a more convenient route than route 544 in 2020). Unlike the 545, this route won’t go to Bear Creek, leaving that to the 543 (which offers a faster and more direct route to Seattle than the 545 does). Peak headways: 10-12 minutes (slightly better than 2020). No service off-peak, as that is offered by the 546.
  • 543: A different variant of the coming 544, except skipping downtown Redmond to serve Bear Creek and Sammamish. Meant to complement the 544,this route takes a direct route between Sammamish, Bear Creek, and SLU. Residents of Sammamish who want to take transit to Seattle or Overlake, but struggles with the weird peak-oriented service that takes them down to I-90, would find this route easier to use. Peak headways: 10-12 minutes, no off-peak service (route 546 is available off-peak)
  • 546: An off-peak-only route that combines the 543 and 544, and goes to UW instead of SLU. Service follows the path of the 542 in UW, the 545 in Redmond, and half of the trips continue to Sammamish. Midday/weekend headways: 15 minutes, weekend: 30 minutes.
  • 554: This route will be largely unchanged, presuming it exists in some form in the East Link restructure. It will likely terminate either at Mercer Island Station or South Bellevue Station (in this case, likely also continuing to Bellevue TC, but could sensibly terminate at S. Bellevue if route 254 is introduced). The important tweak to this route would be extending half of the trips from Issaquah Highlands P&R to South Sammamish P&R, providing the southern portion of Sammamish access to Seattle and Bellevue via I-90 (whereas the northern part accesses Seattle and Bellevue via 520 and the Redmond routes). It seems like such an opportunity that frequent 554 service is coming nearly to Sammamish, and then stops (except for a few late night trips on the 554 heading back to the base through Sammamish). Headways would likely be comparable to the 543/546, but depend on what the headways for the restructured 554 will be.

With that, I think this transit network on 520 will provide service comparable to light rail on the bridge, without:

  1. Absolutely needing to transfer to another bus route to get where you want to go on the eastside.
  2. Spending a lot of money, years, and political capital on building rail when there is already top-tier bus stations and freeway access either built already or under construction.
  3. Focusing Link construction away from places that really need Link light rail service to get much better (like UW-Ballard, Metro 8, or a number of others), and better bus service simply won’t do it.

Let me know what you all think in the comments!

Adding vehicle lanes on a new Montlake drawbridge makes transit worse, not better

Atomic Taco / Flickr

Ed. Note: As always, guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of the STB editorial board.

The City of Seattle may reverse its longstanding position regarding the Montlake Bridge, a major transit corridor leading to the University of Washington Station. A resolution is before the Seattle City Council that reverses the traditionally skeptical posture of the city towards adding lanes, advocating not just bike and pedestrian upgrades (which have wide support), but also, new vehicular lanes across the Montlake Cut. These lanes would carry not just buses, but other “high-occupancy” vehicles as well such as carpools and rideshares. This is a huge departure from the city’s position as of 2015:

Consistent with Resolution 31411, the City continues to support the position that improvements made by a second Montlake bascule bridge are unlikely to yield the benefits that justify the cost and environmental impact of a bridge…

Resolution 31611, section 2, adopted unanimously in 2015

STB covered this issue back in 2012.

A bridge big enough to carry three northbound lanes, to the east of the current bridge, which the state would build with this new direction from the city, would likely require on the order of $100 million of public funds, based on prior WSDOT estimates – state funds already lined up. Free money for public infrastructure – something for transit, bikes – what’s not to like?

From a distance, it might sound like a no-brainer to add more lanes across the ship canal in Montlake, at least for transit, if not for HOV. Montlake is a major bottleneck and will remain so under the best of circumstances at this point.

WSDOT and SDOT have spent many years modeling the complex vehicular and transit movements in this area. A second drawbridge, which would go up exactly as often for exactly as long as the current one does, and lead to intersections north and south of the bridge that are over capacity, does not cure this bottleneck. No new reason has emerged to suggest that adding vehicular lanes would improve transit speed or reliability.

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Monorail now accepts ORCA cards

How to use an ORCA card to pay for the monorail

As of today, October 7, the Seattle Center Monorail has a new payment option: the ORCA card in your pocket, bag, or phone case. After five years of study and negotiations earlier this year from the rest of the ORCA consortium, the monorail is now better integrated into the regional transit system as a real commuter option.

Monorail riders using their ORCA cards will line up at the regular ticket booths and present their card to the cashier. After a quick tap with a handheld reader, you’ll be able to board the monorail, which runs every 10 minutes between Westlake Station and the Seattle Center. The monorail will work similar to a normal bus, with both daily and monthly passes accepted as payment alongside e-purse deductions. The two-hour transfer offered with ORCA transactions also apply to the monorail.

The monorail will continue to accept cash, credit/debit cards, and mobile tickets. Paper transfers from Metro buses will not be accepted. The monorail has accepted mobile tickets through Metro’s TransitGo app since January 2018.

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Requiem for a Streamline: Buses return to the TIBS loop today

This map was accidentally accurate for the past three months.

After over three months of pouring concrete along the bus loop at Tukwila International Boulevard Station, the project is complete, and buses have returned to the loop as of 4:30 am this morning.

Riders on Metro’s A Line and route 124 are likely rejoicing. Riders on the F Line and 128, not so much.

Route 124 and the A Line both terminate at TIBS, so stopping below the station makes sense, and provides off-street layover space.

The F Line would have originally had stops on Southcenter Blvd in front of the station lot, but the City of Tukwila wouldn’t allow them.

The pavement project became a three-month reprieve for F-Line through-riders annoyed at having to go through the loop. It was also a reprieve for other F Line riders happy to walk a couple minutes to the street and catch the bus there instead of having to wade through traffic to get out to the street, where they could have already been waiting.

Consider the math of what Metro could have done with the platform hours it now has to use to have the F Line run the TIBS loop-de-loop:

The F Line runs 1060 one-way trips per week. The TIBS loop adds roughly five minutes to the trip (keeping in mind the bus has to wait at the light at the station entrance, twice). So, the cost of running the loop is approximately 87 platform hours per week. Each trip, including recovery time, takes roughly an hour. 87 trips spread out across the week is about 12 extra trips per day, which would be a 7-8% service bump.

That would be enough to extend 15-minute headway all the way from 5 am to midnight. Or it could have extended the PM period of 10-minute weekday headway by four hours to start before noon.

Whether Metro would take the opportunity to keep the F Line out of TIBS with stops on Southcenter Blvd if Tukwila were to allow it is an open question. But I, for one, grieve for the loss of the streamlined F Line.

A transit bridge across the Montlake Cut?

Montlake’s bascule bridge pictured on Seattle Yacht Club’s opening day of boating season (image by author)

The Seattle City Council’s Planning Committee recently considered whether to endorse a second bascule bridge serving transit across the Montlake Cut. Current city policy does not favor a bridge for transit unless specific triggers are met. However, changing circumstances in Montlake may warrant a revisit. Although last week’s discussion was inconclusive, the question is likely to recur as construction proceeds on SR 520 and WSDOT begins a consultative process with stakeholders in the project later this year or early 2020.

The Legislature funded a second parallel bridge across the Cut in the Connecting Washington package in 2015. WSDOT envisions the bridge being constructed in a third phase of the SR 520 ‘Rest of the West’, but has not released a timetable.

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News roundup: outer counties

King County Water Taxi Seattle
Paul Kimo McGregor/Flickr

This is an open thread.

Comment on the Sound Transit 2020 SIP

It’s Service Implementation Plan time again. The 2020 (draft) version of the plan has three fairly significant bus route changes:

  1. The 540 and 541, both variations on a line from the U-District to the Eastside, would go away in favor of the 544, a Microsoft-SLU run with a few key stops in between. It would run every 15 minutes in the peak.
  2. Weekend 577 trips would continue on from Federal Way to go to Auburn, to increase frequency between the two cities.
  3. Route 566 would abandon 2 stops on I-405.

The first change certainly opens up a lot of interesting transfer opportunities. Although midday and weekend frequencies aren’t high enough to make it work, the emerging system certainly resembles canonical “open BRT” with relatively clear right-of-way on the 520 bottleneck and tendrils fanning out to UW, Downtown, SLU, Kirkland, Redmond, and Bellevue.

You can take a survey or show up for the Oct. 3 public hearing at 12:30 at Union Station.

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ShareNow, regulation, and the future

SounderBruce / Flickr

The “carshare” business (free-floating, short-term rentals) is on the ropes. ReachNow is long gone. Limepod is closing its Seattle operation in December. The survivor, ShareNow (née Car2Go), is pulling out of 5 North American cities including Portland. A few weeks ago, ShareNow rolled out its $4.99 fee to park outside of high-traffic areas, and “up to” $4.99 credit to move it back in, in an effort to cover some costs. It’s enough for some to decide the business model is in a death spiral.

That would be a shame, because carshare has some societal benefits. It changes driving from a large fixed cost to an incremental one, which should discourage driving. It also eliminates one of the main objections to getting rid of a car entirely. So it’d be nice to keep these businesses around or create a public equivalent.

At the moment, we don’t really know if the business model is sustainable, because the current market is shaped by lossmaking “rideshare” providers flooding the market with cheap door-to-door service. As with anything unsustainable, this will one day end and leave one of three equilibria:

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Financial risks to the ST3 plan have grown

Compared to expectations in 2016, capital costs are likely to be much higher as inflation in capital expenditures and right of way acquisition have run far ahead of general inflation (image: Sound Transit)

By the time most ST3 projects are delivered in the mid-2030s, Sound Transit is projected to accumulate over $17 billion in debt. Managing that debt load is critical to delivering the program on time.

Sound Transit’s debt capacity is limited in several ways. There is a statutory limit that total debt cannot exceed 1.5% of the property tax base within the RTA district. There are other constraints, contained within financial policies and bond covenants, that limit bond servicing costs relative to available cash flow. Sound Transit monitors all of these so the future debt load remains financially sustainable and within legal limits. If future projections indicated any of these limits would be exceeded, it would become necessary to delay projects or reduce operations.

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Bus Restructure for Northgate Link

Metro is getting serious about restructuring their system for Northgate Link, so I figured I would as well. Here is a map of my proposed changes (click on the map for a full screen view):

Design Goals

I’ve tried to design a system that enables fast, frequent service to the Link stations and the UW. A balance is made between coverage versus speed and frequency. I’ve focused my efforts on the clusters of apartments that exist in the area, while still retaining a reasonable walking distance for everyone. As part of this restructure, I’ve tried to remove turns, which slow down buses. Effort has been made to consolidate routes and provide more of a grid, but given the geography of the area, it remains a challenge. Overlapping bus routes tend to occur where there is larger demand for transit.

Unlike previous proposals, all of the routes use existing layover space. This map also includes peak-only service.

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Census reports steady growth in local transit use, walking

More Seattle residents taking transit to work (data: American Community Survey)

US Census data released on Thursday confirmed more Seattle residents are taking transit to work. More are walking too. Bike commute rates remain low, however.

Even though the Census’ American Community Survey sample is a large and sophisticated process, sample variation is inevitable and there are occasional anomalies at local geographies. So it’s more productive to step back and look at trends than focus on shifts in one mode in one year. (I’ve assembled some tables with local statistics here). 

In 2010, 18% of workers living in Seattle took transit to work. Last year, this had grown to 23%. It’s a sharp contrast to other major cities where ridership is trending down.

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