Why I’m Voting No on ST3

[Editors’ Note: It has come to our attention that people are misrepresenting this post as “STB is opposed to ST3.” As Ross would be the first to say, he is not an STB staff member. and Page 2 functions much like a newspaper op-ed page. Indeed, Seattle Transit Blog wholeheartedly endorses ST3.]

I consider myself a tax and spend, bleeding-heart liberal. I’ve voted yes for almost every bond issue since I turned 18 (a long time ago). I’ve supported all four Sound Transit proposals. This is why I find it strange and uncomfortable to oppose ST3. It sounds like a great proposal, especially because it is similar to the one originally proposed by Sound Transit. However, in the last few years, thanks in good part to this blog and the folks who write or comment on it, I’ve learned a lot about transit and transit issues. I have a much better idea of what works and what doesn’t; what is a good value and what isn’t. ST3 is not. It won’t do enough to improve transit to justify the large price.

What Works and What Doesn’t

Building mass transit is no guarantee of success. You can spend a huge amount of money and only help a handful of riders.

Or you can build a system that transforms a region. People still drive, but everyone knows that taking transit is a viable option, no matter where they are going. Within the urban core, where all day demand is high, there are two systems that work. The first covers all of the city with a subway, with overlapping lines connecting various neighborhoods. Most of these were built a long time ago (New York, Chicago and Boston). Washington D. C. stands out as a city that has built this recently. Unfortunately, building a system like that is extremely expensive. Even if we build ST3, we are nowhere near achieving that goal.

The second type of system is much smaller. It doesn’t cover the entire city, just the essential core. More importantly, it integrates really well with buses. Trains travel through the most congested, highest demand areas, allowing the buses to run quickly and frequently as well. A great example of a system like this is right up the road, in Vancouver, B.C.  Vancouver is about as similar to Seattle as you can get. Both have challenging terrain full of hills and waterways. Both are fairly new cities that grew with the automobile, not before it. Yet despite having roughly the same number of people, Vancouver BC has a subway that is small compared to ours. While it carries a lot of people (390,000 people a day) it is their overall transit ridership that is impressive: over three times the ridership per capita than Seattle. The model works. Make it fast and easy to get from anywhere to anywhere via a bus or train (or likely, a combination) and people use transit.

These types of subways work really well inside the urban core (where all day, neighborhood to neighborhood demand is high). For the suburbs, building such a system would be prohibitively expensive. You just can’t build a high speed mass transit grid for every suburban neighborhood. What works for the suburban communities is a radial system reaching everywhere, connecting people to the core via a mix of commuter rail or express bus, with service concentrated in the peak but available less frequently the rest of the day.

What doesn’t work well is sending trains to low density or distant areas. Dallas, for example, has the longest light rail line in North America yet it has the lowest transit ridership of any big city. Unfortunately, we are building a system more like Dallas, and less like Vancouver.

Weakness of ST3

Much has been written about the shortcomings of ST3, or rather, the advantages of other alternatives. There are plenty of flaws.

  • Poor Bus Integration.

Even the best, most productive, most justified additional railway section of ST3 fails from a bus integration standpoint. For example, when the Ballard Station is finally added (in 2035) very few will use it from Phinney Ridge, even thought it is one mile due east. It would require two buses to get there, and for most destinations (downtown, the U-District, Northgate, Bellevue, etc.) it isn’t worth taking the new train. What is true of Phinney Ridge is true of Fremont. These are neighborhoods adjacent to the light rail line, but the ST3 additions are pretty much useless for them. Sound Transit has failed (as they have in the past) to consider our geography and the role that complementary bus service plays in it.

  • Cannibalizing bus routes

At the same time, there are clearly areas where buses will feed the stations. Unfortunately, for many of these, the train stations don’t complement the bus service, they cannibalize it — forcing riders into a time consuming transfer. Consider the neighborhood of High Point, the most densely populated part of West Seattle. Right now, if you want to get from High Point to downtown, you can take the Metro 21 directly there. In 2030, when a new bridge is built over the Duwamish and trains run overhead through the Alaska Junction, riders will be forced to get off the bus and wait for the train. What is true of West Seattle is true of Issaquah, where most riders will have to make two transfers to get downtown. It is possible that the buses will continue to run as they do now — but that would mean extremely low ridership followed by extremely low frequency on the trains. Either you eliminate the direct alternative, or put up with a system that performs very poorly and bleeds huge amounts of money.

  • Poor intermediate destinations

Trade-offs like this exist in many subways. Folks trying to get from Queens to Manhattan sometimes take an express bus (or a cab). Yet the subway is still extremely popular, because lots of people are going to stops along the way. Unfortunately, most of ST3 lacks this. Very few will take a train from one stop to another in West Seattle. Nor are there a lot of people trying to get from park and ride to park and ride. Mariner to Mountlake Terrace or Federal Way to Fife trips just won’t happen. Despite spending billions, most of the riders would be better off with express buses.

  • Superficial Service

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of considering door to door travel time versus “serving” an area. It isn’t enough to simply add a station in an arbitrarily designated city or neighborhood. Tacoma stands as a great example of this. From the Tacoma Dome to downtown Seattle, it will take about an hour and fifteen minutes. Sounder is faster, and the bus is much faster in the middle of the day. But more importantly, very few people live close to the Tacoma Dome. Just about everyone is going to have to spend an extra fifteen minutes just to get to the stop. This means that even if a Tacoma resident works right in downtown Seattle, right next to a station, they will spend three hours a day commuting via Link. There just aren’t that many people willing to do that. This is why it is rare for subway systems to extend out this far. Washington DC, New York, Chicago, London and Paris all have over a hundred miles of track, yet none of them extend out this far. They serve those areas with commuter trains or express buses. We should do the same.

It isn’t just the suburbs that suffer from the myth that simply having a station is sufficient to “serve” an area. The Ballard stop is another example of this problem. The route is largely parallel to the existing route, which means it is useless for a large percentage of Link riders. From the UW, Roosevelt, Northgate and every other stop north of there, it is meaningless. It is faster to take the 44 bus than it is to transfer downtown.

By failing to consider geography, density and the history of transit in the world, Sound Transit has failed to come up with a sensible plan. It emphasizes superficial achievements, such as “serving” areas like Tacoma, Everett, Issaquah, and West Seattle instead of building a cost effective transit network.

The planning process is broken

Of course this is just the armchair analysis of someone who listens to experts and has way too much time on his hands. There are plenty of people who feel the same way, but maybe we are all wrong. Maybe the folks at Sound Transit, who hired real professionals to do the job, have come up with the best available plan.

Unfortunately, the professionals haven’t been given a chance. The Sound Transit process is broken, which explains why we have this mess.

In a typical transit improvement process, you start with a blank slate. You look at the census data, the traffic maps, the existing trips as well as existing (and potential) transit and try to make the most cost effective system available. You measure alternatives by how much rider time you save versus how much you want to spend. This is a commonly used metric, that until recently was required for federal funding. Of course there is bound to be some horse trading at the end of the day, but you at least initially come up with reasonable ideas and debate the merits of all of them. Nothing like that happened here.

  • West Seattle

For some bizarre reason, West Seattle — despite having better average transit times and lower density than much of Seattle — was considered a priority, while the Central Area (with the opposite) was not. Making matters worse, Sound Transit never considered a bus tunnel for downtown. Despite a front page article in the largest newspaper in the state and the support of the most fervent subway proponent in town, they didn’t consider it. They studied a couple of “BRT” options, but they failed to include a tunnel, which resulted in slow time estimates. Of course it did. There was no tunnel. Failing to study an obvious option — one that was well known — is not an oversight, it is a sign that the process is broken.

  • Kirkland

What happened to West Seattle was not unique. The city of Kirkland hired a team of consultants to design a bus based solution that would leverage and enhance the existing bike trail. It was part of a range of improvements for the East Side (a plan nicknamed BRISK). Sound Transit didn’t study it, largely because they favored rail. The end result is a plan that features rail from Issaquah to South Kirkland, which is as misguided a plan as one can imagine. Despite a proposal put forth by a major municipality with the help of hired consultants, it was never seriously considered by Sound Transit.

  • The Spine

Then there is “the spine”, a subway from Tacoma to Everett. In every single proposal, projects are graded on this bizarre and arbitrary criteria. Right next to ridership, cost and other obvious measurements, each planning document lists as one of their “Key Attributes” a row entitled

“REGIONAL LIGHT RAIL SPINE. Does this project help complete the light rail spine?“.

The assumption being that the spine is, without question, extremely valuable. That assumption is ridiculous. Very few people are willing to ride a subway for over an hour through miles of suburbia, which is why very few agencies bother to build such things (and those that do have failed miserably at it). Instead of considering and measuring various alternatives on a common and meaningful metric, they judge a project in part on whether or not it helps achieve an arbitrary and dubious goal.

The planning process is broken. An independent, experienced set of planners should be given the resources and freedom to come up with proposals for the area. Each proposal should be measured and openly debated. I don’t think there is any way we would get anything like this plan if that was the process.

Where we go from here

There has been a lot of discussion as to what will happen if ST3 fails. I understand and sympathize with those who feel like a flawed plan is better than nothing. While I can point to many mistakes made with ST2, I would enthusiastically vote for it again. But the amount of money we are talking about requires a better system. We have other needs besides transit. We could spend the money on education, day care, mental health services, homeless relief, police protection (or training), just to name a few. In the meantime, we will be able to muddle along. Seattle is making changes that will improve things considerably, while ST2 will change things dramatically.

It is likely that Sound Transit will come up with another plan. Just about everyone expects the next proposal to be smaller. So, whether proposed by Sound Transit or individual municipalities, it is likely to involve less rail and more bus service. These proposals would not only be more cost efficient, but better overall. In the suburbs, bus service improvements and new busways would enable much faster door to door service for a lot more riders.

Seattle remains one of the few areas in the region where light rail could be cost effective. But building smaller, shorter, more effective rail like a Metro 8 subway or a Ballard to UW subway would upset too many in West Seattle (where the head of Sound Transit lives). What is more likely is to build the WSTT, and make other, relatively cheap improvements. That would serve a much wider area — not only within West Seattle and Ballard, but along the extremely popular Aurora corridor. It would provide much faster door to door travel times for more riders. Like a similar and very successful system in Brisbane, we will be able to convert the busway to a subway eventually. But my guess is like them, we will be happy with the busway and focus our efforts on other parts of the city.

In all these cases, a cheaper plan would actually save more people more time than what ST3 has proposed. But I could be wrong. Show me the numbers. If ST3 fails, I want them to go back to the drawing board, and then show me the cost effectiveness of each proposal. I’m sure that we will end up with something much better.

Metro 8 After Bertha is Finished

With the SR 99 tunneling project more than half done, it is worth considering what a revised Metro 8 bus route could look like in 2018.

By then the street grid will be connected, like so:

With that in mind, I’ve come up with a bold proposal for a new routing.

It is unlikely that all of this will come to pass. There are sections that would be very controversial, and quite possibly not be worth it. Here are my thoughts on the routing, section by section (I ignored the east end of the route, as it would remain the same).

First and Mercer through the Seattle Center

This could be rather controversial, of course. Running a bus through the Seattle Center might upset some people. During big events, the bus would have to re-routed (just as buses around Husky Stadium are). There aren’t that many events like that, though, so I don’t see this as a problem. Thomas Street does go through the Center, but some work (making better sidewalks) would have to be done. To avoid complaints about diesel exhaust, the route could become a trolley or a hybrid (running only on electricity through there). The advantage to running via Thomas is that it wouldn’t encounter any traffic through the Center. The second advantage is that it would enable a much faster connection to the monorail.

Running on Thomas avoids the worst congestion on Denny. Another alternative would be to skirt around the Center to the northeast (via 5th, then Mercer). That is likely a significant improvement, but I’m not sure how easy it will be to get additional right of way there. On the other hand, this would share part of its trip with the RapidRide D route (along 1st Ave. West and Queen Anne Avenue) which means that if those streets are given bus lanes, both routes would be able to take advantage of them.

Seattle Center to Eastlake

This is arguably the greatest part about the viaduct replacement project. The grid north of Denny (up to Harrison) will be connected. One of the great things about this area is that converting general purpose lanes to bus-only lanes won’t be that difficult from a political standpoint. There is no “taking” as people can’t drive that way today. It is quite reasonable to extend those bus lanes throughout this area, all the way to Eastlake Avenue. Even with the change, it isn’t a major through route, because you simply can’t go that far (I-5 and the Seattle Center cut off through traffic). This makes it significantly different than Madison or Eastlake (where lots of lanes were taken, while taking others proved too difficult).

Eastlake to Capitol Hill

This is another controversial change. Right now there are no buses on Belmont. This, again, is why it would make sense to run wire along this line, so that neighbors don’t complain about noisy buses struggling to get up the hill. By going over the freeway on Lakeview, the bus would avoid the traffic on Denny altogether. A traffic light (with signal priority for the bus) would have to be added to Eastlake at Thomas, but that is a pretty cheap addition. If more money is found, it looks to me like you could widen Eastlake (next to the freeway) or eliminate some parking to add jump ahead lanes. Lakeview is a bridge, of course, and it wouldn’t make sense to spend the money on expanding it. But if traffic overall is less of a problem there than it is on Denny, moving the line north would make sense.

As with the change through the Seattle Center, it might not be worth it. The big improvement will occur when the grid around Denny and Aurora is open. That, just by itself, will enable a huge improvement in speed and reliability for one of the most important buses in our system.

Support “Full BRT” with Roosevelt HCT

The Seattle Department of Transportation is in the midst of planning a new high capacity transit (HCT) corridor from Roosevelt to downtown. The route would connect some of Seattle’s most populous neighborhoods: Roosevelt, UW, Eastlake, South Lake Union and downtown.

The latest official document lists three options. The first is based on the current Metro RapidRide service and is called (of course) RapidRide. This has some stop consolidation, off board payment and transit priority. North of Denny, it would lead to a 26% increase in peak hour (i.e., rush hour) speed. The second option is called “Targeted Investment” and involves all of that plus “Minor roadway geometric changes that may include use of queue jump, business access and transit lanes, or dedicated transit lanes”. North of Denny it would be 38% faster.

But the most exciting proposal is called “Full BRT“, which would revolutionize transit it in the area. It would have center running buses and have “major roadway geometric changes that may include use of queue jump, business access and transit lanes, or dedicated transit lanes”. The result is extremely fast rush hour speeds:
Roosevelt BRT

An average speed of 21 MPH may not sound like much, but that is fast for the city, and blazing fast for urban transit (the NYC subway and Toronto subways average less than that). It is also, as the chart shows, a dramatic improvement — south of Denny it is over 10 times as fast as today! To get an idea of the possibilities, here is a chart showing travel time from stop to stop:

Roosevelt Timing

These numbers are rounded up to the nearest minute from the rush hour estimates. The stops are the ones that SDOT recommends. This obviously represents a dramatic improvement in transit mobility.

But this won’t happen unless enough people support it. Please let SDOT know that you want “Full BRT” on this important corridor.

Faster Madison BRT through Downtown

There has been a lot of discussion about the plans for Madison BRT, and how it might encounter congestion downtown (in BAT lanes). I propose a solution.

Background

The Madison BRT plan at this point has center running from 13th to 9th. West of 9th, a bus would have to move from the center lane to a curbside lane. From there, it would head down Madison and up Spring (traveling with traffic). There are several problems with this. First, moving in an out of bus lanes is problematic. Second, BAT lanes can easily encounter congestion downtown. It is legal for a general purpose driver to use the BAT lane if they are turning into a garage or the next street. With lots of pedestrians, this means that a bus can be blocked by a car waiting to turn.

Proposal

  1. Extend the center running lanes all the way to 6th.
  2. Add a contraflow lane on 6th, from Madison to Marion. A bus heading west on Madison would then be able to make a left on 6th to get to Marion.
  3. Add contraflow lanes on Marion and Madison.
  4. Add a BAT lane for 1st or Western (depending on where the bus turns around).

Advantages

  1. By extending the center running lanes to the contraflow lanes, the bus doesn’t have to weave to get into or out of the curb lane. When the bus is headed westbound (down the hill) it simply makes a normal left turn. When it is headed eastbound, it is the only vehicle headed that direction, so changing lanes is easy. Regular drivers making a turn from 6th to Madison will simply be required to turn into the right most lane (as they are legally required to do most of the time).
  2. Contraflow lanes for downtown eliminates all of the BAT conflicts where they are likely to be an issue. A BAT lane on 1st would be very quiet, as there are no garages along here, nor can a car take a right turn onto Madison (only a bus can do that).
  3. The only left turn is trivial. The left turn occurs westbound from Madison to 6th. The only oncoming traffic will be another bus (in a contraflow lane). This is better than the current proposal, which would requires a left turn onto Madison from the north (to get from Spring to Madison).

Concerns over Extending the Center Running

  1. Adding stops is tricky and expensive for center running BRT. In this case, though, there are no plans for a stop along here (there are no stops between Terry and 6th).
  2. With center running BRT, left turns need to be banned or managed with special signals. In this case, there are four intersections to worry about, 6th through 9th. As mentioned, 6th is not an issue (since a car can’t take a left). Seventh is one way from the south, so you only have to worry about banning cars from making a left turn eastbound on Madison. The rest of the streets are two way. In all cases, the intersections are very similar. There are left turn cutouts, but no left turn signals. This tells me that either very few people take a left, or they are backing up into regular traffic anyway, and left turns should have been banned a while ago. It isn’t clear where the center running ends in the current proposal, midway on 9th or the end of ninth. But either way we are talking about very few left turns being eliminated. One for 7th, two for 8th and maybe another two for 9th. The effect on traffic should be minor.

Other Negatives

  1. Loss of parking. I am no fan of parking, but this would eliminate a huge swath of parking. Lots of angle parking at that. This could be moved to the other side of the street, assuming that we are only going to have the buses running in contraflow mode through here. That is implied. The only bus that goes on Marion right now is the 12 and it follows pretty much the exact same route. The large amount of parking on Marion gives the city a lot more flexibility. It can eliminate parking or reduce the number of general purpose lanes (or split the difference and replace angle parking with parallel parking). They don’t even have that option with Madison (they are getting rid of a general purpose lane).
  2. Loss of taxicab stops. This is similar to the parking issue. The one area where this is a big deal is right where I would like to put a stop. This is right by a major hotel, where cabs pick up and drop off guests. Even without a stop, taking this lane is a bit problematic. But there is enough room there to solve the problem. The first thing you do is build a  two inch curb separating the two directions of traffic. Now a cab can pull up to the curb and park as before. The guests only have to worry about a bus that turns right in front of the hotel. A bus would be turning, approaching a bus stop, with plenty of visibility, so this really isn’t an issue. You essentially move the carved out parking area for the cabs closer to the east (closer to the freeway). You would also have to remove the curb bulb on the uphill side, meaning the white truck in this picture can’t park here. That becomes a general purpose lane. You might have to take out the other curb bulb as well (for a bus to make that turn), but I think you can leave the lamppost and hydrant. I’m pretty sure all of this will work, without any real loss, other than pedestrians lose a curb bulb or two.
  3. Stop selection. So far as I know, the main reason Spring was chosen over Marion is because it is closer to Link. But this connection to Link is only one-way. So someone has to walk an extra couple blocks, but only when going from the BRT to Link (either way they use Madison for half the trips). It is actually less than two blocks. From Marion, the fastest way to Link is to walk south on 3rd to a little bit past Cherry to the Pioneer Square station. So compared to Spring, it is really only one extra block, and only for half the trips. Meanwhile, you save a block for Ferry riders. Speaking of which …
  4. Ferry traffic is an issue. This goes back to parking, though. Marion has plenty of parking on the left side of the street (where this new bus lane would go). If the city is worried about too many cars being squeezed into too narrow a pathway, then it can just get rid of the parking (which seems likely). It can also funnel folks elsewhere, such as Spring. That would essentially move the ferry traffic right around this route.

I believe these changes would lead to much greater reliability and speed through downtown, which in turn could lead to greater frequency or cheaper operation. The cost is not trivial (moving a lot of parking, removing curb bulbs and the like) but I believe it is worth it for a line as important as this one.

Seattle Projects for ST3

Sound Transit is in the process of deciding what will be part of ST3. For the subarea that includes Seattle, I believe the set of projects listed here can best serve both Seattle and the larger region.

While it is tempting to assume that we can build anything, Sound Transit won’t look at every possible light rail line. They won’t, for example, propose something to replace the Metro 8 bus route, even though a strong case can be made that such a subway would be the best value for the region. Sound Transit will propose projects largely benefiting areas they have started studying: West Seattle, Ballard, and areas next to them. With that in mind, and with a rough idea of what these things cost, I propose that Sound Transit build the following:

  1. The WSTT
  2. West Seattle BRT
  3. Ballard to UW Light Rail

There are other small projects that could be done by Sound Transit, the city of Seattle. or some combination of agencies. This includes the NE 130th Station, the Graham Street Station, and a pedestrian bridge connecting North Seattle College with the Northgate Station. For the Elliot/15th corridor, two small projects are critical. The Elliot and 15th Avenue bus lanes need to operate as bus lanes at all times, along with signal priority given to the bus (as they would with light rail). A new underground bus stop at Dravus and 15th should be added. A stop there does not appear to be that difficult to build — there is space there for a wheelchair ramp. Making these changes would allow a bus to avoid traffic, and thus greatly reduce the time a bus spends serving the 15th (N)W corridor.

There are a lot of smaller projects that could make a big difference, but the three projects I listed are large and should be the focus of ST3 efforts in Seattle.

Alternative

The obvious alternative to these sets of a projects is a subway line from Ballard to West Seattle. The combination of projects I propose are much cheaper. This means that money could be spent making these projects even more productive. For example, the Ballard to UW subway could be extended to include stations at 24th NW and University Village. Neither of these stations are included in my proposal, but they do remain a possibility if costs are as expected.

The Seattle Department of Transportation has suggested a routing for the northern section of a Ballard to West Seattle light rail line. This serves as a good comparison point. There is no suggested subway line to West Seattle, but costs make a subway system for West Seattle problematic. To send even two subway lines to West Seattle is extremely expensive, and won’t happen in the next round of funding. At best we get one, which is adequate for a comparison (and the basis of a previous post).

There are winners and losers with every project — even the most far fetched. If we built a subway line from Discovery Park to Madison Park instead of U-Link, some people would come out ahead. As should be obvious though, U-Link is simply a better value. It will mean a bigger improvement in transit time for more people. While less obvious, the set of projects in this post is better than the Ballard to West Seattle proposal for the same reason: more transit riders would save more time.

Comparison

Many of the stops are the same, which makes the comparison between the two projects fairly easy. The trade-off between a station at Belltown and a station at Denny and Westlake is a toss up. Both are very densely populated (for Seattle) and have plenty of jobs. Both are about the same distance from other stations. I don’t see a substantial advantage of one versus the other.

With West Seattle BRT, the vast majority of riders come out ahead with BRT, because the vast majority of riders would have to take a bus to the light rail line. There simply isn’t enough money to build three (or more) railway lines to serve most of West Seattle. We will never have great light rail to West Seattle, but we can have great bus service to West Seattle, which is why it is the better choice for the majority of riders.

Service from one part of downtown to the other would be the same or slightly better with the WSTT. There would be the same stops as with the subway, but buses have lower headways, lower operating costs and thus will come a lot more frequently. It should be assumed that the buses in the WSTT run like BRT — with off board payment and level boarding. Even RapidRide, with all its flaws, has this. Buses are capable of passing other buses (as this old Seattle bus tunnel video shows) which means that buses can travel quite quickly through downtown (although with off board payment I think such passing would be rare). So riders traveling between Lower Queen Anne and West Seattle (and every combination in between) come out the same or ahead with my proposal.

Riders who walk to the Interbay station(s) would come out about the same either way. A BRT bus along this corridor would travel just as fast as a train. Either way the vehicle would travel just like Link does in Rainier Valley (fairly fast and with rare delays). For those in Magnolia or West Queen Anne, feeder buses either go through the station, or buses feed the other buses. Either way, because of the greater frequency (or possibility of one less transfer) those in Magnolia or West Queen Anne come out ahead with my proposal.

Those in Ballard (at 15th and Market) headed to downtown will take the other subway (via the UW). It takes almost the same amount of time to go via the UW as it does to go via Interbay. The Ballard to West Seattle subway is faster, but not by much (around two minutes).

Riders who are going between Ballard and Interbay, Lower Queen Anne or South Lake Union come out ahead with the Ballard to West Seattle subway. Going via the UW would be substantially slower. Direct bus service from Ballard to Interbay, Queen Anne or South Lake Union would be good, but not be as good as if there was a new (much higher) bridge over the ship canal. This is the only set of trips that benefit substantially from the Ballard to West Seattle subway.

Advantages of This Proposal

Meanwhile, the number of trips that are made substantially better in my proposal is huge. Unlike the Ballard to West Seattle subway, I can’t list every trip that is better with my proposal because there are so many of them. So rather than list every connection that is better, I will summarize and talk about large regions, rather than individual connection points. First, the WSTT provides service along Aurora to South Lake Union and downtown. It would pair nicely with bus service heading east-west in South Lake Union. Once the SR99 work is complete, buses can travel east-west over streets like Thomas or Harrison, possibly in their own lane. This would mean that accessing any part of South Lake Union/Cascade from this stop would be very fast and frequent.

At this point, I believe my set of proposals is way ahead. With all due respect to the riders traveling between Ballard and Lower Queen Anne, I think the number of riders from Greenwood/Phinney Ridge to downtown outnumber them. They also see a bigger improvement. While traffic can be really bad crossing the Ballard bridge, it is not as bad as a bus slogging through downtown traffic. Those riders could transfer, of course, but that has its own (substantial) time penalty. Without a new tunnel, buses on Aurora will have to compete with cars to get downtown, a situation that is likely to get worse, not better.

But the really big improvement comes from the added set of trips with the Ballard to UW subway. The UW is one of the biggest destinations in the state (and growing). It also happens to sit at a major transit crossroad. So not only would this mean that a trip from Ballard to the UW is fifteen minutes faster, but a trip from Ballard to an area like Roosevelt, Maple Leaf, Northgate, Lake City, Lynnwood (and many other neighborhoods) would be fifteen minutes faster. What is true for Ballard is true for every stop along the way (e. g. Wallingford) as well as stops connected with bus service (like Greenwood and other parts of Wallingford, Fremont and Ballard). As mentioned in a previous post, the buses that run along the north-south corridors in that area travel fairly quickly, and would complement a light rail line quite well. In short, anyone in the area north of the ship canal and west of I-5 would have a substantially faster transit ride to just about everywhere. This makes it clearly better than a Ballard to West Seattle subway. A Ballard to West Seattle subway would only benefit a small part of Ballard, and only for those heading along a single corridor (a corridor that would see substantial improvement with my proposal as well). The set of projects I listed will serve a much greater area, and a much larger combination of trips.

I would love it if we built light rail everywhere in this city. But we have to be realistic, and assume that not every possible subway line will be built. It is also important to build the most productive lines first. Building things out of order costs money and diminishes support for transit. We have to live with the possibility that the next set of projects we build could be our last set (just as we did with the previous proposal). Of course it makes sense to plan for the future, and the possibility that the system will be expanded. But we shouldn’t build less productive lines now and hope that we fill in the gaps later. We may never get that chance. With that in mind, it makes sense to build projects that provide the greatest improvement in transit time to the greatest number of riders. This is clearly the case with this set of proposals.

Fast Train to Ballard

This is a time comparison of two different ways for getting from Ballard to downtown Seattle. The first is a fairly direct route, as proposed by SDOT. The second involves going from Ballard to the UW, then south, via the main line. As it turns out, not counting the transfer, the time difference is minor: roughly two minutes.

Methodology

Generally speaking, trains spend a good part of their time stopped at a station or accelerating or decelerating. As luck would have it, both of these routes have exactly the same number of stops (eight inclusive). This simplifies things considerably. I also determined that the distance between each station is just big enough for the train to reach maximum speed (although in many cases, only for a second). Again, this simplifies things.  Both trains would spend the same amount of time at a station or accelerating or decelerating. Thus the difference in time between the two routes is simply the difference in distance divided by the maximum speed. Based on my calculations, the SDOT route is 5.25 miles, while the route via the UW is 7.35 miles (a difference of 2.1 miles). Since the trains have a maximum speed of 58 MPH, going via the SDOT route saves 2 minutes and 10 second, not counting a transfer (if there is one).

Total Time

The estimates are a bit rougher when it comes to the total time for either trip. I take two different approaches to figuring this out. Both lead to roughly the same amount of time: 18 minutes via the UW and 16 minutes via Queen Anne.

The first approach is to look at our system as it currently exists or is being built. Since stop spacing varies widely in our system, so too does the time it takes to travel eight stops. But I think we can start by ignoring the trips that include Rainier Beach to Tukwila, since that trip dwarfs the others in terms of stop spacing (over five miles). This gives us a range of 14 to 20 minutes. So, splitting the difference gives us 17 minutes. I think it is reasonable to assume that the SDOT route would take 16 minutes to get to downtown, while the route via the UW would take 18 minutes. This is roughly in line with other measurements. It is going to take 8 minutes to get from the U-District Station to Westlake, so it is reasonable to assume it will take 10 minutes from Ballard to the UW (the distance isn’t far, but there is an extra stop). This gives us 18 minutes via the UW and 16 minutes via Queen Anne.

The other approach is take the estimates that Sound Transit gave with the studies. Sound Transit did not include a time estimate for a Ballard to downtown route like the one that SDOT proposed. The closest route that resembles it is Corridor A, which gives an estimate of 14-19 minutes. The SDOT route adds two stops, so it is reasonable to take the far end of that proposal, or 19 minutes.

Of the various proposals for UW to Ballard high capacity transit, only one involves a light rail in a tunnel: A3. The time estimate for A3 is 6-9 minutes . However, there are  only two proposed stops with that route. With the addition of two more stops, I think we can take the high end of that estimate: 9 minutes. Once you add the known time (8 minutes from the UW to Westlake) you get to 17 minutes. Using this approach gets us within a minute of the other estimate (17-19 versus 16-18).

Given the imprecise data surrounding actual travel time, it is not known exactly how long it will take to get from one place to another. However, based on the distances, the number of stops and the capability of our trains, the difference between the two routes will be around two minutes.

Move the 255 Out of the Tunnel and Move Other Buses In

The question of which buses should be in the tunnel has been asked in at least two different ways. Right now, the buses that are slated to remain are the 41, 74, 101, 102, 106, 150, 255. I agree with David Lawson, that the 255 should be removed. I think it should be replaced by either the 77 or the combination of the 76 and 316.

One of the big advantages to the bus tunnel is that it feeds very well into the express lanes. The 255 does not use the express lanes, so it does not gain much of an advantage (if it gains one at all) by using the bus tunnel.

It also makes sense to cluster similar bus routes into the tunnel, or out of the tunnel. The old 71,72, 73 and 74, for example, all served the U-District, and they all went in the tunnel. This meant that someone headed to the U-District from downtown simply waited for the first available bus starting with a “7”. The 255 doesn’t pair well with any other bus that travels in the tunnel. It is possible that someone might want to head to Montlake on either the 255 or Link, but I doubt very many.

The buses that use (or could use) the express lanes, but are not slated to use the tunnel are the 76, 77 and 316. By my estimation, they make the following number of trips:

76 — 11 trips at rush hour.
77 — 8 trips at rush hour.
316 — 11 trips at rush hour.

By removing the 255, we would remove 23 trips at rush hour. So, obviously, we can’t put all three in the tunnel. Each bus overlaps (or shares) some of the other routes in the tunnel, so there are several possibilities. These are the two that I believe make the most sense:

76 and 316 — They both serve the Green Lake Park and Ride. They diverge from there, but since there are a lot of transfers from there, and this a fairly populous area, the shared ridership is probably significant. In addition, the 76 and 74 are close enough in service area to have significant overlap (for those who live in between the routes).

77 — The 77 and 41 both serve Pinehurst (NE 125th and 15th NE). This also means either one works as the first bus to the 347/348. In addition, those headed to the area served by the 77 can take a 74 (or Link) and then transfer to the 73 or 373 instead. Replacing the 255 with the 77 would mean significantly fewer buses in the tunnel. This could improve reliability in the tunnel, especially for Link.

Either option (either the 77 or the combination of the 76 and 316) would be an improvement over the 255. The 255 does not take advantage of one of the best features of the bus tunnel (its connection with the express lanes) nor does it’s service area overlap with buses that will be in the tunnel.

Proposed Changes to the new 67 and 73

Metro presented its new “Alternative 3″ U-Link restructure proposal. As part of that process, I would like to propose the following changes for the 67 and 73:

1) As David Lawson suggested, combine the 73 and 373 through the U-District.

2) Have the 67 use 5th Ave. NE, instead of Roosevelt Way, north of 80th and south of the transit center. This is the routing that the city is proposing for a new high speed corridor. A shorter, less congested route will make the connection between Northgate and Roosevelt much faster. This will, in turn, reduce the number of service hours necessary for this route, which can increase frequency on this (or other) buses.

A fast connection to Northgate Transit Center is important. This is a major connection point to other buses. For example, if you are traveling from Northwest Hospital to the UW Medical Center (both owned by UW Medicine) then you would use this bus. Likewise, if you are headed to North Seattle College from the UW. It makes sense to provide a fast, convenient connection between the very popular Northgate Transit Center, Roosevelt and the UW.

This isn’t without its drawbacks. There are probably more people along the currently proposed route. But I believe the difference is small, and not worth the substantial difference in distance (4.4 miles versus 5.5 miles). The distance isn’t the only problem. You have several turns in a very high traffic area. It is simply a lot quicker (and a lot more direct) to use the southern part of 5th. This area is not devoid of apartments or other destinations either. There are plenty of apartments and offices at the bottom of the hill (close to the transit center) as well as up on top (around 85th). Compared to the rest of the area (the transit center, the Roosevelt neighborhood or the UW) the number of additional people served by the currently proposed routing is small. It doesn’t make sense to slow down the bulk of riders just to serve a handful of additional people (while leaving out a different handful).

Of course, this would mean no service on Roosevelt Way through Maple Leaf. There would also be no weekend service on the northern part of Maple Leaf at all (on any street). Which is why I propose the following:

3) Move the 73 and 373 to Roosevelt Way. This routing has been used before — when the bridge over Thornton Creek on 15th was being repaired. This will, of course, slow down the 73, ever so slightly. But it is hard to justify slowing down a bus like the 67 so that the 73 can run faster, since the 67 is much more frequent. Since the 73 is slated to follow Roosevelt on the south end anyway (south of 65th), this routing will reduce the number of turns. This means that the speed difference will be minor, if there is one. Overall, the combination is much faster and much less congested.

4) Either make the changes to the 67 applicable on the weekdays only, or run the 73 on the weekend. Either way, you would get needed coverage for the north part of Maple Leaf. Having a weekend routing is nothing new. If you can’t find the service hours to run the 73 on the weekends, this is a good solution. The vast majority of riders on the 67 will only experience a delay, as opposed to a loss of service. Only those on the southern part of 5th (who are currently slated to have no service at all) are left out on the weekend. Those on Roosevelt Way would hardly notice the change (since the southern part of the 67 and 73 are very similar). Overall, it is less confusing than other changes for the weekend (such as a complete lack of service, which is common).

Connecting Ballard-UW Light Rail with North Link

In a previous post about Ballard to UW light rail, I wrote a section called “Mixing Lines”. After reading that section again, I realized it is misleading. New information has also been revealed, which has lead me to write this piece, which can replace that section:

Connecting with North Link

There are several ways that the Ballard-UW line could connect with North Link. One of the easiest would be to interline before the U-District station. The only drawback to that approach is that it could interfere with the frequency of North Link, where frequency will peak at four minutes (at least initially).

It would also be fairly simple to require a transfer. Similar systems exist throughout the world, and ask people to spend only a few seconds getting from one platform to the next. We could do the same. The Ballard-UW line could easily be timed to minimize the time spent waiting for a transfer. This would be most valuable later in the day, when frequency on North Link is reduced.

An ideal, but more expensive solution would be to build a spur junction, which provides the most flexibility. The Ballard-UW line would not interfere with North Link during peak hours, but mix the rest of the day. This means that when North Link is running at six minute frequency (or more) a train coming from Ballard would just keep going to downtown. This would enable greater frequency in our core (UW to downtown) while removing the need for a transfer for part of the day. Three minute frequency is well within the headway limits of our system. Building such a junction gives Sound Transit the most flexibility when it comes to determining which trains go where (and how often). I would prefer this option, but it is the most involved and the most expensive.

North Link Capacity

There is the remote possibility that things could get crowded on North Link. Given the latest information from Sound Transit, it is extremely unlikely that we would reach capacity. But if we wanted to reduce the number of people traveling from the UW to downtown via UW Link, we could always build something like the WSTT. I think the WSTT adds value to the entire network so I don’t want to imply that fears about crowding justify its construction. But the WSTT, which compliments this quite well, is just one of the many ways that we can deal with an overcrowding scenario that is unlikely.

Pinehurst Bus Suggestions for Alternative One

Metro recently announced a couple of proposals for improving the bus routes in various parts of the city, once light rail serves Husky Stadium. The issue has been covered in a series of articles, including this one, covering the north end. Amongst the more controversial changes was one that would effect the Pinehurst area of Seattle.

Pinehurst is a somewhat obscure area between Lake City and Northgate. It doesn’t have a huge number of people, but has a fair number of apartments and is only a little less densely populated than Northgate (which you can see by zooming in on this census map). One of the nicer things about the area is that there are fairly regular buses from there to the U-District. Specifically, the 73 and 373 both connect Pinehurst with the UW.

This would change under alternative one. Service would be consolidated to a new route, the 67, which serves Roosevelt, then loops around to the Northgate Transit Center. While I see the need to serve Northgate from the south, I think there are several flaws with this suggestion:

  1. Except for the 373 (which runs infrequently and only during peak hours) bus riders in the area will no longer have direct service to the U-District.
  2. The transfer required to get from the 347/348 will be awkward.
  3. Metro will spend service hours sending a bus in a somewhat convoluted and congested route to Northgate.
  4. Riders trying to get to Northgate from the south will endure this somewhat convoluted route.

Most of these points deserve a little explanation. First of all, to get to the UW, a rider coming from Pinehurst or anywhere in the service area of the 347/348 would change buses at Roosevelt and Northgate Way. This is awkward mainly because the buses will be turning. For example, if you are headed north, you would stay on the 67 until it makes the left turn towards Northgate. Then you have to cross Roosevelt, to get to the bus stop (on Roosevelt heading north, north of Northgate Way). If the other bus (coming from Northgate) arrives before the light changes, you will miss it. First the bus will turn left, then you will be able to cross the street and get to the bus. Unless the bus driver is patient, and willing to delay everyone on the bus, you will have a fifteen minute wait for the next bus. At best you have to wait almost two complete light cycles to make this transfer.* At worst you miss the bus. This is a degradation not only for Pinehurst riders (who never had to make the transfer) but those who used to make a transfer from the 347 or 348 to the 73. Previously, those routes shared service on 15th Avenue NE, which meant that a rider simply had to get off the bus and get on a different bus at any of the bus stops. That will no longer be available.

Second, based on my calculations, the 67 route that loops around on Roosevelt is roughly 5.5 miles, versus a route that goes more directly, which is 4.4 miles. My guess is that the cost in time is even bigger, as the route will spend a significant amount of time making turns in heavy traffic. This means that service hours are being spent taking a less direct route, which not only effects those who will be delayed in connecting to Northgate, but the system in general.

There have been numerous suggestions and ideas for improving the situation. I suggest three here, to perhaps make it a bit easier for people to reference them if they want to contact Metro about these changes. I am calling the new bus route that replaces much of the old 73 the 63, to avoid confusion. Hopefully this will be clear by looking at the maps.

Suggestion One:

This map shows the route. As you can see, both buses would share service from the UW to the Roosevelt neighborhood. This is by far the most popular section, so sharing service would provide greater frequency for this important corridor. As with all of the suggestions I make, riders headed to Northgate will have a faster, more direct ride. This direct ride will save a significant amount of service hours, which means that, if my calculations are correct**, you could have the following:

New 67 (red on the map) — Every 12 minutes
New 63 (blue on the map) — Every 30 minutes

This is a very slight reduction in service for the 67 (10 minutes to 12 minutes) but a more direct route.

Suggestion two:

This is the same map, but with different scheduling. Essentially, the buses will simply trade-off, the way that the 347/348 trade-off. So, you have:

New 67 (red on the map) — Every 20 minutes
New 63 (blue on the map) — Every 20 minutes

This serves the core of the route (from the UW to the Roosevelt neighborhood) every ten minutes. Since both routes are likely to be shorter, this saves service hours over the routes designed by Metro in their Alternative One, which can then be used to bolster frequency anywhere in the system or makes these routes more reliable.

Suggestion Three:

This route is more like what currently exists. The biggest advantage to this routing is that the new 63 is faster. It also has additional coverage, because it goes on 15th, not Roosevelt. Since the split occurs earlier than the other suggestions, it don’t think it makes sense to try and give each run equal time. The timing on this is identical to suggestion one:

New 67 (red on the map) — Every 12 minutes
New 63 (blue on the map) — Every 30 minutes

My Pick

I prefer suggestion two. I think there will be enough ridership to justify splitting the run, especially as Link is added to the UW. That is greater frequency (for both sections) than exists now, while still maintaining excellent frequency on the most popular section (UW to Roosevelt). It also provides for a very nice connection between Pinehurst and Maple Leaf.

In general I like the changes proposed with alternative one. I think it represents a better overall network. With any one of these changes I think it would be even better.

Continue reading “Pinehurst Bus Suggestions for Alternative One”

North Seattle Bus Routes After Lynnwood Link

I thought it might be interesting to see what bus routes in the north end would look like, if a station was added at NE 130th. So, I decided to sketch out a proposal.

Map Notes

I used Google Maps to create a route map for parts of the north end. This was a bit of a challenge. There are several advantages of using Google Maps (you can zoom in and out easily, hide various features, choose between different background maps, etc.) but this did require me to manually draw the bus routes. Since I have trouble coloring between the lines, I took a few short cuts. First off, I ignored one-way streets. So, for example, a bus route that follows Roosevelt is drawn only on Roosevelt, even though the bus will have to go on 12th heading north.

I based my routes off of the maps that David Lawson designed. I don’t think I would have attempted this, if not for his excellent work. If I list a route as being the same as one that he designed, and there is a difference, the difference is accidental. I got lazy, and left many bus routes off. I focused on the north end routes,  so routes that didn’t go north of the new 71 are left out. The only bus routes that do go north of the new 71 that I didn’t draw are the Rapid Ride D, the 15 and the 28. I would use David’s maps as a guide to see how this fits into the bigger picture.

There are three layers to the map that can be shown or hidden independently. The one titled “Bus Routes” is essential. You may find “Labels” helpful, depending on the zoom level. I find it helpful to show the light rail stops (I only list the ones north of the canal and south of Snohomish County). If anyone has any tips for displaying the information better, or know of tools that they think might be easier to use, please mention it in the comments.

Bus Route Notes

I think you will find a heavy dependence on Link. Almost every bus in the area goes close to a station. Even with the heavy dependence on Link, and the occasional detour, it still provides a much needed grid to the north end. There are individual buses going directly east and west on 125th/130th and 145th. On Northgate, the bus makes a bit of detour, as do the buses on 155th and 175th.

I didn’t attempt to estimate frequency levels, but with the exception of the 71 and the new 41, I think fifteen minutes for just about every line is reasonable. David has that for most of the north end as well. Some of these will likely have twenty or thirty minute frequency, but very few. The new 41 (as I am calling it) will hopefully be at least as frequent as the new 71 (ten minutes).

As should be obvious, the new 41 is a key bus route in this system. I feel it is very important to have fast, frequent service from Lake City Way to Greenwood Avenue along 125th/130th, but by no means is this the only way to achieve this. Sound Transit and Metro run lots of buses along highway 522. Much of that is on bus lanes, which make it a prime candidate for BRT. If BRT could be built along here, and the buses deliver fast, reliable and frequent service, then the 522 (or something similar) could replace the 41. But I drew the 41 assuming that wouldn’t be the case, and that Sound Transit’s 522, for example, would end before Bitter Lake.

So, with all that in mind, here are the bus routes:

Bus Routes

5, 16, 65, 71, 88 — The same routes that David Lawson designed.

40 — This is the same route as David Lawson designed it, but with a small change. I extended it to 145th, instead of the old turnaround for the 41 (more about that below).

41 — This is the key bus route in the area, and why I started this project. Not only does it connect Lake City and Bitter Lake with Link better than the alternatives, but it connects the east and west side of north Seattle extremely well. 125th/130th is simply the best way to cross the freeway, between 85th and 145th. It is straight, fast, goes right by a station and is not as congested as alternatives. The fast connections enabled by this bus are substantial, connecting neighborhoods via buses that travel fast and (sometimes) frequent corridors such as Greenwood, Aurora, Ravenna Avenue NE (not to be confused with Ravenna Boulevard), 35th NE and Sand Point Way. For example, the following connections are fastest using this bus:

  • Lake City to 105th and Aurora
  • Jackson Park to 115th and Greenwood
  • Lake City to Woodland Park Zoo
  • Shoreline to Wedgewood
  • Mountlake Terrace to Matthews Beach
  • Lynnwood to 95th and Aurora

If RapidRide improves, this might even be the best way to get to the north end of Fremont (45th and Aurora) from Snohomish County and Lake City. This is because the new 41 could provide the best connection from Link to Aurora. North of there (145th) means more time spent on Aurora (and less on Link). South of there means time spent backtracking or dealing with bad traffic. Providing the first good connection between the east and west side of Seattle north of 85th means that it will provide the type of transit network that this city has never had. Many of these trips will obviously be in high demand (Lake City or Bitter Lake to the UW or downtown) while others might seem rare (Lynnwood to 95th and Aurora). But these are the types of trips that force people into their cars. Or, to put it another way, service like this can get people out of their cars.

Deciding where to end this new 41 on Lake City Way is not easy. I decided to extend it past the old 41. I have trouble leaving out the very densely populated area between there and 145th.. Folks there could walk (of course) but the logical end of this run is 145th (after which, the population decreases rapidly). Turning around is problematic, but I figured one left turn (at 145th) and a series of right turns would be fairly easy. If this doesn’t work, then this (along with the 40) could end where the old 41 ends.

67 — This is very similar to the 67 that David Lawson designed. It travels up University Way and 15th (instead of Roosevelt) before cutting over to 5th. The interplay between the 67 and 73 is interesting, and can be done any number of ways. In this case they compliment each other in coverage, and only overlap south of 45th. Even that could be eliminated, by making one of them stop there (or at Roosevelt, although that would lose some coverage).

69 — This is similar to the 69 David Lawson designed. South of NE 125th (the Lake City neighborhood) it is exactly the same. But this heads west at NE 145, then north up to Aurora Village via Meridian.

73 — This is a new 73 that follows Roosevelt for much of its route. With the old 41 route gone, there will no longer be service on 5th Ave NE, north of Northgate Way. This will follow Roosevelt, and thus replace it. There will be just as much coverage, and a shorter walk for the majority of riders (since there are more apartments on Roosevelt).

75 — This is the new 75, which follows the old 75 route, south of 125th NE (the Lake City neighborhood). North of there it makes its way over to 130th, then heads over to Shoreline College.

78 — This is very similar to the 78 David Lawson designed. The only difference is that it connects with the station at 145th.

81 — This is similar to the 81 that David Lawson designed. The only difference is that it makes a detour to the Mountlake Terrace Transit Center. I’m not thrilled with the way it does this, but I think it is important that a bus like this directly connect with Link (one way or another).

87 — This is similar to the 87 that David Lawson designed. North of 145, it is the same. At 145th, it crosses the freeway, and serves Meridian.

89 — This serves Kenmore, the 522 corridor, and 145th. This creates a one stop connection from Greenwood Avenue to Lake City Way (including Link) to compliment the 41, which provides the same on 125th.

Doubling Up

There are several areas where bus routes merge. It may be difficult to see from the map. So here is a list of some of the more important ones:

Northgate Transit Center to Northgate Way and Roosevelt — 40 and 88.

Lake City Way, between 125th and 145th — 40, 41 and 69

NE 125th and Lake City Way to Meridian and 130th — 41 and 75

NE 145th, between 30th Ave. NE and Meridian — 69, 78, 89

Conclusion

There are a lot of different ways these routes can be designed. By no means do I think I have the best solution. I’ve done some hand waving as far as where to send buses on highway 522, but I am convinced that fast, frequent service between Lake City Way and Bitter Lake is essential and possible, while still providing excellent service for 145th.

Please Write the City Council about the Monorail

The Seattle Monorail is an important and underutilized transportation system. It connects downtown with Uptown. Specifically, it connects Westlake Center (right next to the most popular Link light rail station) with a stop inside the Seattle Center. While the Seattle Center is a popular destination in its own right, the station is only a few blocks from a very populous and very popular neighborhood. It travels this distance in two minutes. Since it travels above traffic and intersections, this is must faster than any other form of public transportation along this route, and much faster than a car in typical traffic.

The monorail is owned by the city, but for the last ten years has been operated by a private contractor, Seattle Monorail Services (SMS). The contract is up for renewal, and the city is poised to go with SMS again. I have no problem with SMS, and assume they do a fine job. However, there are two big flaws with the way they are operating right now, and I don’t believe we should renew the contract until those flaws are corrected.

The first problem is lack of ORCA card support. Monorail fares are cash only. The fare itself is reasonable, and in line with other transit systems (Metro bus, Sound Transit train, etc.). But the lack of ORCA support severely reduces the number of people who use the system. Monthly pass users receive no discount; full fare is charged for transfers; and even those who want to take the monorail and only the monorail are inconvenienced. Given the lack of ORCA support, my guess is the vast majority of riders are tourists (or their companions) out for a ride, as opposed to people simply trying to get from one very popular spot to another. Riders who avoid the monorail for this reason are likely to take the bus, and put even more pressure on a crowded bus system.

The second problem is frequency. The monorail runs every ten minutes. This is not terrible, but there is no reason why it can’t do better. Given the first problem, I’m not surprised that it runs every ten minutes. It is viewed like an amusement ride, not a serious form of transportation. Delays for an amusement ride are not costly. If you really want to ride the monorail, then you’ll wait (just as someone will wait to get up the Space Needle). But from a transportation standpoint, it is detrimental. Typically, the monorail is still faster (and in many cases more frequent) than taking a bus, but the advantage is reduced because of the ten minute frequency. We can do better. Three minute frequency is possible, but would probably require better (and possibly more expensive) crowd management. Five minute frequency, on the other hand, should be simple and easy.

The next step in the renewal process occurs Tuesday, December 2, 2014. The Seattle City Council Parks, Seattle Center, Libraries and Gender Pay Equity Committee meets to discuss and vote on several topics. But the most relevant topic is the renewal of the SMS contract, or item 4 on the agenda. The contract is for ten years, and is summarized by this memo. I am asking Seattle residents to write the council and ask that they delay renewing the contract until these issues are addressed.

The long term goal is fairly simple, and has two parts. The first is that the monorail accept ORCA cards, the same way that other transportation agencies do. Compensation for the agency should work the same way as it does with the other agencies. It is quite likely that this will increase the money that SMS earns. Many of the current users are tourists that don’t have ORCA cards, while ORCA users shun the monorail. The second goal is that frequency on the monorail be increased from ten minutes to five minutes.

It is too late in the process to add an amendment to the operating agreement. That is why I will ask the council members on the committee to simply extend the current contract for a year, while details of the new contract are addressed. I don’t think the city should enter into a ten year agreement with SMS without ORCA support. There may be technical reasons why five minute frequency can’t occur, but at a minimum, I think the issue should be discussed. I see no technical reason, or any reason at all, why ORCA should not be accepted on the monorail.

Ten years is a long time, and a lot can happen (and will happen) in those ten years. Link will reach the U-District, Northgate and Bellevue. With the appropriate improvements, the fastest way from various parts of the city to the Seattle Center (or Uptown) will be on the monorail. During the next several years, we will also be considering improvements to light rail, which include service to Ballard via Uptown. The monorail and a light rail line would compliment each other quite well. It makes sense for the new light rail line to serve the neighborhood directly, and integrate well with buses, while the monorail serves the Seattle Center. It is important, then, that we better use this public asset, and to do so we need to work out a new contract with SMS.

There are three members on the committee, and one alternate:

Jean Godden, Chair (jean.godden@seattle.gov)
Bruce A. Harrell, Vice-Chair (bruce.harrell@seattle.gov)
Tom Rasmussen, Member (tom.rasmussen@seattle.gov)
Kshama Sawant, Alternate (kshama.sawant@seattle.gov)

I am going to write all four. Given the short notice, I will email the council members. I ask that you do the same. As always, please be courteous when writing your representative. I wish I knew about the situation sooner, as I hate to suddenly throw this issue at them. But transportation in this city is very important, and we need to make sure we take advantage of all of our assets, and this includes the monorail.

Let’s Build Another Transit Tunnel

History

The Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel has improved transit in Seattle more than any other project. Long before it served trains, it served buses (and still does). Thousands of buses have gone through it, saving passengers thousands of hours in travel time. Now it is an essential part of light rail — by far the most important part. It wasn’t cheap to build, but compared to the rest of the system (such as the Beacon Hill tunnel, the surface rail on Rainier Valley or the elevated rail to the airport) it is a tremendous value.

Future

At a point in the not too distant future, the tunnel formerly known as a “bus tunnel” will only serve light rail. This is a good thing, but it means that some buses, especially those from the south, will be forced to the surface through downtown or rerouted elsewhere. At the same time, we are in the midst of planning for high speed transit from Ballard to downtown and West Seattle to downtown. We should build a new tunnel to address all of these issues.

Proposal

I propose a new transit tunnel through downtown that will support both buses and light rail. From the southern end, it would start (and connect seamlessly) with the SoDo busway. In the middle, it would parallel the existing tunnel at least in part, allowing for easy transfers along the route. The northern route is trickier. The big question is whether to pay the extra money to include Queen Anne, and if so, which parts of Queen Anne. Corridor A includes stops on upper and lower Queen Anne. This wouldn’t be cheap, but it would certainly be popular. Corridor B only include a lower Queen Anne stop, and saves money in the process. Arguably the best value would be a modified Corridor C. This would be significantly cheaper, especially if much of the tunneling work could be done as cut-and-cover (just as the original tunnel was built as a mix of cut-and-cover and boring). I really don’t have a strong opinion on which northern route is best, as the costs are so sketchy. In general I would say that each proposal has merit, and that each route would be a good value. It is simply a case of how much extra we want to spend for the extra ridership. This decision (the exact northern route) does not alter the basic proposal — a second, mixed use tunnel would be a great value for the city.

The Southern End

Bus riders who live or travel south of downtown Seattle would benefit greatly by this tunnel. The SoDo busway is a great asset for buses. It connects freeways in the area with downtown (through the existing tunnel). With relatively inexpensive changes, the buses could connect from the south to downtown in a fast, exclusive way. WSDOT is currently improving the HOV lanes and has plans for more. Fairly soon, there will be HOV lanes continuously from Tacoma to Seattle. The state has also proposed adding a ramp to better connect I-5 to the SoDo busway (they don’t have a project website, but it is the second proposal listed here). This would enable a rider to go from Tacoma to downtown Seattle in an exclusive lane the entire way. Similar changes could be done for West Seattle. Parts of the West Seattle freeway are already HOV only, but more could be done on the freeway itself, as well as to connect the freeway to the busway. This isn’t cheap, but it is a lot less expensive than new light rail because much of the work has been done, and buses can travel a more steep grade than trains. For a lot less than the cost of the cheapest light rail line to West Seattle  (serving only one station) you could add miles of exclusive lanes and  ramps. With the money left over, you could fund countless improvements to the buses in the neighborhoods (exclusive lanes, traffic light priority, offsite boarding, etc.).

Speed Now and More Capacity Later

Unlike the existing tunnel, this new tunnel could be designed for off board payment from the very beginning. It would also be designed to handle buses and trains the day it opened. Like the transit tunnel, it could accommodate future rail expansion. If West Seattle ever gets populated enough to justify the extra capacity and cost of light rail, then the tunnel could handle it.

Alternatives

One alternative is to build light rail from West Seattle to this tunnel immediately. I could spend a lot of time explaining why I think this is a bad value, but consider, just for a second, how exactly that would be better for folks in West Seattle. The population in West Seattle, as in much of Seattle, is spread out. This means that you wouldn’t get very high ridership unless you funnel people (via buses) to the station. There is nothing wrong with that — it plays a large part in why I think this route makes so much sense. But in the case of West Seattle, it makes a lot less sense. Buses in the area can, in many cases, get to the freeway faster than they can get to a subway station in West Seattle (assuming there is only one subway line). This means that there would not only be a transfer penalty for most riders, but little to no time savings while riding. The transfer penalty could be substantial — Sound Transit expects headways on the West Seattle line of ten minutes (and that is during rush hour). It is important to remember that buses and light rail travel at about the same speed. The time savings come from grade separation, not vehicle capability. For this corridor, it is a lot cheaper to build that grade separation for buses, not rail. Rail is still better from a capacity standpoint, but at this point, it simply isn’t needed for this area.

Buses from Tacoma could simply use one of the other stations (such as the one in Tukwila). But that would cost riders a lot of time. Unfortunately, unlike the rest of the system, the train moves very slowly, and very infrequently between Tukwila and Seattle. Even transferring riders from Renton to a station at Rainier Beach would cost riders a substantial amount of time.

Another alternative is to use the SoDo station as the endpoint for buses. To do that, you would need to build a bus station there to allow buses to turn around. For this type of system to work, you would need very frequent rail service (think Toronto, not Washington D. C.). Unfortunately, I don’t think this will ever happen. Trains from the south will never be able to travel very frequently through the Rainier Valley. Sound Transit could add a turnback station in the SoDo area and send additional trains there, but there are significant limitations with that approach. Headways are limited in our central core, and some of those trains will branch off to the east side. Simply put, I don’t think we will be able to have the kind of frequency from SoDo to make such a transfer painless. The transfer would not be as bad as the one in West Seattle, but it wouldn’t be good, either.

Another approach would be to build a short tunnel from the southern entrance of the existing tunnel to the International District station. That would allow someone to make one transfer to any other part of the system. Furthermore, this puts it much closer to the heart of downtown. Even if SoDo becomes more popular, I doubt it will never be as popular as the area surrounding the International District. If not for the work being considered for Ballard, this would make a lot of sense.

Conclusion

As Bruce Nourish mentioned, the most important part of the Ballard to downtown line is from Mercer to downtown. The rest of the route can be done on the surface, with little time penalty (less than a minute). But through downtown, you need a tunnel. It makes sense to run this tunnel as far south as the SoDo busway, and have the southern end serve buses not only from West Seattle, but from Tacoma, Renton and other areas.