“We are now hearing many community members questioning whether there needs to be a new station in the community at all – and as a matter of good government we need to answer that question. “To be clear, looking at alternative location options in addition to those currently proposed does not mean we don’t expand transit capacity downtown – it just means we assess a broader range of options. Let’s let the process figure that out, with the community fully at the table.”
Sound Transit is planning for service changes in 2023, and has just released its 2023 Service Plan for public comment. This plan outlines the changes to Sound Transit service that is anticipated for 2023. And the outlook is… bleak.
For some background, you may recall that there were significant improvements in transit service planned in Sound Transit’s 2022 Service Plan. As it turns out, none of the changes outlined in the 2022 plan ended up happening except the restoration of S Line service. This is almost singularly due to the labor shortage (with other contributing factors also to blame for the slip of the Hilltop extension of the T-Line into 2023), which has showed no signs of letting up. In its more detailed draft Transit Development Plan, Sound Transit reports that in October 2021, labor shortages have caused a reduction of 5% of ST service operated by King County Metro, 10% of ST service operated by Community Transit, and 20% of service operated by Pierce Transit. Mitigations included a sudden reduction of ST Express service, and the transfer of route 566 from Pierce Transit to King County Metro. With the labor shortage being persistent through today, there has been no perceptible improvement so far, completely blocking the proposed ST Express improvements.
The service plan
The 2023 Service Plan anticipates more of the same, detailing the mitigation efforts made in 2021 and 2022. The plan tempers expectations of any service increases in 2023, noting that the agency will continue to implement two service changes a year. Service increases are not off the table (seeming to refer to the planned 2022 increases), but this won’t happen until staffing levels are sufficient to deliver on current transit service reliably and without cancellations.
The plan goes into detail about routes with current service reduction, in comparison to the service they would have had with sufficient service levels. This includes routes 577/578/590/594. which have the steepest reductions (running every 30 minutes midday and weekends instead of 15). Routes 566 and 592 are also seeing frequency reductions during peak hours (which is the only time they operate), and the 580 is getting unspecified reductions in favor of route 400 (which parallels route 580 in Puyallup). Also, the portion of route 580 from Lakewood to Puyallup (currently “temporarily” suspended) will be eliminated, leaving SR 512 for the exclusive use of cars once again.
No mention of East Link
One notable omission in the service plan is literally anything about East Link. While we already knew that East Link is likely to slip into 2024, the fact that Sound Transit isn’t even tentatively including it in the service plan says a lot about when the agency is anticipating opening the line. To this, I will say that I hope Sound Transit will break the news as soon as it is certain (starting with the official project page), rather than waiting until just a few months before people think it will open. Delaying the announcement will only frustrate riders and voters more, and is less honest to future riders who may be beginning to plan around the start of East Link service.
The service plan is open for public comment until August 9. So if you have feedback, be sure to fill out the survey before then.
Seattle (July 27, 2022) – Today, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced that he will appoint Greg Spotts to be the next Director of the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), pending confirmation by the Seattle City Council.
Spotts currently serves as the Executive Officer and Chief Sustainability Officer at the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services, which oversees 1,500 staff positions, an annual budget of $230 million, and a capital program of more than $350 million. He has led the delivery of over $600 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act projects as well as efforts to make Los Angeles more walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly and sustainable.
Danny Westneat’s latest column in The Seattle Times asks a bold question:
Why are we continuing with the same transit planning — such as for Sound Transit’s future light-rail segments — without factoring that a third or more of the workforce may not be commuting to a downtown core, or commuting at all?
Westneat is knee-jerk reacting to Amazon’s recent announcement that it plans to pause work on its Bellevue office expansion: a total of six towers encompassing some 3 million square feet. The implication is that if a corporate behemoth like Amazon can’t be bothered to continue building office towers, then transit – as we know it – might as well be dead:
This sea change, if it continues, may cause cities over time to “untransit” — to unwind their transit-oriented, spoke-and-hub development patterns, Stern predicts. Cities will stop concentrating on building dense housing near transit lines, she wrote, and shift to infrastructure to support remote work (such as municipal broadband, or small “remote work” centers away from the old business core). Cities may adopt more mixed-use zoning everywhere to bring a taste of the old commercial downtown out to residential neighborhoods (where so many are now “going” to work).
I’ll first acknowledge what is true in this assessment. There is already broad consensus in the transit and urbanist community that the new normal for remote work will undoubtedly impact future land use: central business districts will no longer have a regular weekday “swell” of workers. Super-tall office-only skyscrapers are likely a thing of the past. And mixed-use upzoning is undoubtedly on the planning menu for non-CBD neighborhoods.
What I find much more questionable is this notion that “cities will stop concentrating on building dense housing near transit.” I’m not sure there is a planner out there who actually believes this. Regardless how commute patterns change, expanding buildable TOD maximizes the return on transit investment. Housing and transit can never be divorced, whatever remote work world we live in. If anything, it’s the massive suburban park-and-rides at outlying stations that should be converted into developable uses rather than sit empty.
Westneat furthers this line of argument by suggesting that remote work blunts the merits of continued Link expansion. I find this thinking to be bizarre – Link was not and never has been planned to be a commuter-centric system. If you look at a map of ST2 and ST3 extensions, it’s clear that the long-term plan is to connect all the PSRC regional growth centers by either rail or BRT. There’s nothing about the plan that screams commuter-heavy downtown-centricity.
I’ve also previously mentioned that the new remote work normal also means less emphasis on expensive commuter peak-only services and more investment in all-day cross-town routes. Paired with a frequent regional rail network, a system like that would actually be well served by “mixed-use zoning everywhere.”
Seattle Subway has 5 fundamental pillars of rider experience: speed, reliability, accessibility, expandability, and safety.
Ensuring expandability, and the financial and operational feasibility of future expansion, is fundamental to making sure ST3 is a good transit investment, and Sound Transit seems to have forgotten that. We need your help to remind the Sound Transit Board at their meetings on July 7th, July 14th, and July 28th. Sign up to testify or send an email today with links below.
ST3 can be a fantastic expansion of our regional system, but it will not be the end of light rail expansion for our region. As the Seattle Transit Blog Editorial Board wrotein 2018, ST3 must be built for the future. Light rail lines must be designed so that future expansion can happen without high cost reconstruction of the lines we’re planning today, or future service disruptions during construction. When ST3 is complete, 13 of 30 Seattle’s “urban villages” and “urban centers” will be connected, but completing our vision map would connect 27 of 30 urban villages and centers in Seattle. There are four areas where Sound Transit needs to explicitly future-proof the system as part of ST3 so future expansion remains financially and operationally feasible, saving money and reducing operational impacts long term:
The Sound Transit Board failed to advance 20th Avenue NW in Ballard to Draft Environmental Impact Statement Study. Sound Transit must study a Ballard station in the heart of Ballard.
Seattle Subway has 5 fundamental pillars of rider experience: speed, reliability, accessibility, expandability, and safety.
For many reasons that Seattle Subway has laid out previously, Sound Transit must reopen study of a Ballard station that serves the heart of Ballard. Both Sound Transit’s proposed 15th and 14th Avenue NW station options fail to serve the heart of Ballard and Sound Transit’s prior study of a station at 20th Avenue NW confirmed that it would serve more people and have better transfers. Providing accessibility for the most visitors, workers and residents is fundamental to a good transit investment, and Sound Transit seems to have forgotten. We need your help to remind the Sound Transit Board of this at their upcoming meetings on July 7th, 14th, and 28th.
“Placing the station to the east undermines our city’s work to create a densely connected community,” Strauss said. “This is infrastructure that will last 100 years, and we can’t afford to get it wrong.”
Moreover, Seattle’s preferred alternative presentation contains a lot of good advice for Sound Transit, particularly in the all-important tunnel north of Chinatown. Seattle Subway has written previously about the best choices for future riders. Though I don’t agree with 100% of either document, I invite you to compare results.
Elsewhere in old friend Lizz Giordano’s report for Publicola, there’s less exciting news. Lisa Herbold is extensively quoted about “impacts” without much apparent regard for future riders. Maybe Sound Transit should just build the Gray Line and no one would be impacted at all. Most notably in her district, Seattle requests a Delridge station by the steel plant to keep it away from neighborhoods, and thus from potential riders.
I don’t like this framework for thinking about the project, but at least there’s a recommended decision that can move us forward! That’s more that can be said about the City’s Chinatown advice:
Last month, Metro reported an average weekday ridership exceeding 200,000 boardings. This is a mark that hasn’t been seen since the pandemic started, with the exception of last October (which typically represents the peak month of ridership in a year). More encouraging is that year-over-year growth is currently sitting at about 40%, which certainly trends with the lifting of pandemic restrictions.
Sound Transit has also clawed back much of its lost ridership, sitting just shy of 100,000 daily boardings in April. Central Link ridership is back to a respectable 66,000 boardings, although it’s unreasonable to make comparisons to pre-pandemic levels with the Northgate extension having opened just last Fall.
There’s some discussion about the effect of high gas prices on ridership recovery. From a recent KOMO article:
“If it gets up to like $7 a gallon I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” said Apollo Rising, Seattle driver. “I’m probably gonna use the bus a lot more.” … “We hear it sometimes on social media that people are choosing transit because of the cost,” said Sean Hawks, spokesman for King County Metro. “It’s $2.75 for a bus fare but even less expensive fare if you’re a senior, youth or have a disability or have a lower income.”
Many remember the summer of 2008, when drivers fleeing gas prices helped boost transit ridership to what were then record-levels. My suspicion is that we’re not seeing exactly the same effect now largely since many workers are still working from home.
As I stated last month, crossing arbitrary thresholds can provide feel-good moments but they should not be the barometer we use to gauge system health in a post-pandemic world.
Timm is currently CEO of Greater Richmond Transit Company, where her more than 400 employees operate successful regional bus routes serving the Richmond, Virginia area. Timm is known as a highly collaborative leader who forges strong relationships with community groups and partners, and for building an agency culture focused on dedication to public service and equity.
From 2016 through 2019 Timm served as Chief Development Officer for WeGo Public Transit in Nashville, Tennessee. Her efforts included directing development activities and agency staff across functions including engineering, outreach, customer care, planning, grants, marketing, communications, service quality and Innovation. She oversaw the implementation of major regional capital projects associated with the more than $6 billion nMotion Strategy that the Nashville region adopted in 2016.
Since Sound Transit released the DEIS for the new West Seattle-Ballard extension, stakeholders have been poring over the findings and submitting their comments. One major group of stakeholders is the Chinatown-International District (CID) neighborhood, which recently came out in full force either against the 5th Avenue alternative or against all options entirely.
Neighborhood advocates insist the station must go a block farther west, under Fourth Avenue South near South King Street, with the highways and sports stadiums. That would lessen the impact on an area that’s been sacrificed for generations to regional construction. . . . But choosing Fourth Avenue possibly creates a traffic nightmare, because builders would demolish and replace the six-lane elevated street. In that scenario, about 15,000 daily car and bus trips, and stadium surge traffic, must be detoured during six years of partial road closures, compared to only 5,000 on Fifth for a 2½-year closure.
Total construction time on Fourth Avenue is estimated at nine to 11 years, a couple of years longer than Fifth.
It’s important to remember that while Sound Transit has not yet identified a preferred alternative for this segment, it finds itself in the usual quagmire of picking and choosing between neighborhood impacts, ridership, and cost. The 5th Avenue option certainly has superior neighborhood and transfer access, but construction would come at a great cost to the CID.
Back in April, Seattle Subway endorsed an even-shallower version of the 4th Avenue shallow option (CID-1a). Their proposal would effectively be at-grade, flush with the BNSF tracks and the 4th Avenue viaduct rebuilt over it. It’s not clear how compatible this super-shallow option would be with the deep Midtown Station profiles that are currently on the table.
While not without its own problems, a 4th Avenue alternative does open creative possibilities for re-doing the entire King Street Station-IDS hub, which is currently a patchwork of office buildings, limited walkways, and pedestrian-unfriendly 4th Avenue. A lid over the BNSF/Sounder tracks and repurposing Union Station are some of the ideas worth considering.
Sound Transit is marketing a slate of service impacts from 2-Line (East Link) construction and 1-Line maintenance as a “Future Ready” program. Starting next month and stretching into Q1 of 2023, existing 1-Line service will undergo intermittent periods of reduced longer headways and shuttle service. From the press release:
Monday, July 11 to Sunday, July 24Monday, Aug. 22 to Sunday, Sept. 4
In order to replace tile at the Columbia City Station, train frequencies will be reduced to 20 minutes in each direction during all operating hours during the closure of one track, requiring all trains to use a single track between Mount Baker and Tukwila.
Friday, Oct. 21 to Sunday, Oct. 23Friday, Nov. 11 to Sunday, Nov. 13
As a result of work on the overhead catenary system in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT), train frequencies will be reduced to 20 minutes in each direction until 11 p.m. From 11 p.m. until end of revenue service, a Link bus shuttle will be available to connect passengers between Capitol Hill Station and SODO Station.
A period of five days in late Q3 2022
In order to repair and replace the overhead catenary system, Link will be shut down between Rainier Beach and Tukwila International Blvd. stations with a Link bus shuttle connecting passengers between these two stations.
A period of at least three weeks in Q4 2022
Trains will be single tracked through the DSTT and train frequencies will be reduced to 20 minutes.
This work is needed to complete connections between the current 1-Line service and new 2-Line tracks that will link riders to the Eastside. Impacts are still to be determined.
Some of the work is par-for-the-course as it concerns completing connections to the 2-Line, which will branch off of the main trunk south of International District Station. Some other work is a bit more puzzling: the replacement of platform tiles at Columbia City, for example, demands a closer look as to whether this was a contractor misstep or some other root cause.
While this is all happening, Sound Transit is also continuing to work on escalator replacement in the DSTT. This is a long time coming and a big source of consternation, as our friends at The Urbanist point out.
With Cascades service between Seattle and Vancouver out for most of the remainder of 2022, cross-border travelers between the cities will have a new option in FlixBus. The German-based intercity carrier is launching a new Seattle-Vancouver route, slated to begin service this Thursday, June 2nd.
The suspension of Cascades service along with the folding of BoltBus last year has proven to be a double whammy for anyone hoping to get between Canada and the U.S. via transit. With COVID restrictions continuing to have latent impacts at the border, it remains to be seen how quickly cross-border intercity transit can recover. The Seattle-Vancouver service will be FlixBus’s second cross-border route, after the NYC-Toronto and Buffalo-Toronto routes, which only just launched this month. Service details below:
FlixBus’ first cross-border routes between Seattle and Vancouver will run 5 days per week in each direction on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, and will also include stops in Everett and Bellingham, Washington.
Vancouver-bound buses will leave Seattle (6th Avenue and S. Lane Street) at 7:30 a.m. with stops in Everett and Bellingham, crossing the U.S.-Canada border and stopping at Pacific Central Station and Richards Street-Waterfront Station between 11:30-11:40 a.m.
Buses heading to Seattle will leave Richards Street-Waterfront Station at 12:45 p.m. with stops at Pacific Central Station, Bellingham and Everett before arriving in Seattle by 3:55 p.m.