Priority Treatments on the Streetcar

One of the more exciting ideas in the new Transit Master Plan is the Rapid Streetcar Network, which is a way of having Seattle control its own transit destiny. The crucial word is “rapid,” which makes this potentially transformative rather than a fancier bus line. The lines would have significant stretches of dedicated right-of-way and ubiquitous priority treatments.  But how are Seattle’s existing and under-construction lines doing in this regard?

According to SDOT’s Ethan Melone, of the 18 signalized intersections on the South Lake Union line, ten have some sort of signal priority or preemption, while only one has a queue jump.

That’s not ideal, but it’s a magic carpet compared to the First Hill Line. I count twenty-two signals each way,  and Mr. Melone confirms there will be only four priority signals: across Broadway & Boren and Broadway & Howell in both directions; southbound, the left from Broadway to Yesler and the right from 14th to Jackson, across the diagonal of Rainier/Boren; and northbound, the left turns on and off 14th Ave.

Mr. Melone explains that cost, which is “a few thousand dollars per intersection,” is not the constraint. Instead, the transit lines and high vehicle volumes that cross Broadway make “it difficult to prioritize green time for the streetcar through movement, because of the impacts to transit/traffic on the other movements.” However, he adds:

Signal priority is therefore pretty limited, but we have made other changes—signalized left turn pockets on Broadway, the southbound exclusive track on 14th, and the streetcar-only approach lanes at each terminus, some new left turn restrictions—that supplement the signal priority in terms of speeding up the streetcar operation as much as possible in this corridor.

I find this disappointing for reasons of perception and branding. Although from an engineering perspective the time penalty of a traffic light may be small, coming to a complete stop creates the perception that the ride is slow. If the city can show voters that the streetcar network is more than just more transit stuck in traffic, they might be more inclined to support it. And frankly, if rail isn’t a means of making priority more politically viable the capital expense is much less compelling in corridors that don’t need the extra capacity.

As a candidate, Mayor McGinn understood this, saying that we should “strive to make [the FHSC] quick and separate it from traffic as much as is feasible.” Obviously, there are many cooks in the kitchen of this project besides the Mayor, but it’s sad his department hasn’t been more imaginative in fulfilling that sentiment.

CTAC III Wants Your Opinion

Seattle’s Department of Transportation has an alphabet soup of committees exploring various transportation problems.  The Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee III (CTAC III) is tasked with matching funding sources to all the various transportation projects in the various master plans, as well as basic road maintenance needs.

If you’re a Seattle resident, I encourage you to fill out the online survey about what transportation investments are important to you, and your willingness to pay taxes to support it.

There are also workshops starting yesterday evening (oops), and continuing tonight and Thursday. Showing up and having a conversation with decision makers is always more effective than submitting uninformed comments.

Transit Master Plan Corridors Selected

Click to Enlarge

Seattle’s ongoing Transit Master Plan process* is designed to provide a list of transit spending priorities for the City of Seattle and should conclude in September 2011. In general, Seattle’s role is to fund capital projects like bus lanes, streetcars, and queue jumps; the TMP is not an attempt to redesign Metro’s route structure, and building infrastructure for routes that Metro is unable or disinclined to serve with high-frequency service would be silly.

The first step of the study, just completed and briefed to the Council’s Transportation Committee yesterday, established the quantitative criteria for scoring dozens of potential investment corridors**. Criteria were focused on current and potential ridership, current and future density, and social justice considerations. Overall, my personal impression was that corridors that connected dense and walkable neighborhoods generally tended to score the highest.

Stage I of the study selects the top 15 of these corridors for further analysis. Depending on how the precise corridor ranking plays out, the study will evaluate the most promising five or so of these for high capacity transit like BRT, streetcars, or light rail. The remainder will receive smaller-scale investments that can make buses work better. The 15 finalists are depicted in the map at right.

In a separate part of the study, Nelson/Nygaard will analyze circulation in the downtown core, hoping to make the system more usable and legible. The map below (the jump) indicates the areas of focus, fairly congruent with the inner parts of the trolleybus network.

Continue reading “Transit Master Plan Corridors Selected”

First Hill Streetcar Broadway Corridor Update

First Hill StreetcarSound Transit and the City of Seattle will be holding an open house at Seattle’s First Baptist Church on Saturday, June 26th to discuss recent developments and the next steps involved with constructing the First Hill Streetcar line connecting the Capitol Hill and International District LINK Light Rail stations.

The Seattle City Council has approved the route for the Capitol Hill and First Hill segments and will have new design concepts for Broadway available for viewing as well as guests involved with the project who will be available to answer questions.

In addition, Sound Transit and the City of Seattle will have an information booth set up at the Capitol Hill Pride Festival on Saturday, June 26th.

11:00 AM – 1:00 PM, Saturday, June 26 ,
Seattle First Baptist Church
1111 Harvard Avenue Seattle, WA 98122
For directions click here.

2:30 PM – 5:30 PM, Saturday, June 26
Capitol Hill Pride Festival
Booth #69 located at the intersection of Broadway at John St.

Update 1:20PM: I spoke with the folks at the Seattle Streetcar re: wonky station names and they replied that they have been monitoring the station name discussion on this blog. When they get to the point where the station locations are fixed, they will try to make the station names as obvious as possible to help guide people and avoid confusion. Furthermore they are open to suggestions.

For More Information: Seattle Streetcar (official site)

Actual route map: Click here

SLU Streetcar Ridership Increasing

By Mike Bjork

To parallel the recent increases in Central Link ridership, more trips are being taken on the South Lake Union Streetcar as well.  The latest data (PDF) shows that in March, there were a total of 1,347 daily boardings and 1,547 weekday boardings (when factoring out weekend ridership).  This is an improvement of 20% over the same time last year.  January and February numbers saw daily  boardings of 1,173 and 1,268, respectively.

The continuing increase may reflect the rising occupancy rates of properties in the neighborhood like  PATH, a non-profit in health research and medicine, which recently relocated 300 employees to a Denny office.  The numbers, however, likely do not reflect Amazon’s move into its new headquarters, which just began earlier this month. Considering the move, ridership will likely exceed the original 2010 forecast of 1,350 daily boardings.

Again, like we’ve said many times with our Link ridership reports, one shouldn’t draw too many inferences about ridership numbers.  While the streetcar is indeed two years older than Link, it was designed as a long-term investment for a neighborhood that is undergoing significant revitalization.  Amazon’s move and other signs of growth in South Lake Union are indicators that will help make the SLU streetcar a success in the future.

(H/T: Michael Arnold)

Slog: Cap Hill Fights for Design on Aloha Extension

Slog has an interesting report on the Capitol Hill Community Council and its fight for the city to fund a study an extension of the First Hill Streetcar north to Aloha:

“If we’re going to build it, let’s build it right,” says Tony Russo, who designed the Capitol Hill Community Council’s kickass Broadway streetcar proposal, and has lobbied the city hard to extend the streetcar to the end of Broadway Avenue. “We need cycletracks and the extension, and we need them both now.” The Capitol Hill Community Council has been fighting to get an Aloha Street extension back on Seattle Department of Transportation’s agenda since it was cut due to the project’s budget constraints. An Aloha extension would cost an estimated $20 million dollars to build.

However, the Capitol Hill Community Council says this $20 million dollars isn’t pressing—the city has several years to come up with the money while it works on the main leg of the streetcar, and, as Russo put it, “Obama’s throwing money at streetcars right now.” Their concern is funding the $750,000 preliminary engineering study and environmental review, which they say needs to be completed by June of this year when SDOT and Sound Transit finalize contract agreements for the streetcar line. Currently, the scope of the contract is written to terminate construction of the streetcar at Broadway and East John Street, at the light rail station.

The report goes on to say that SDOT doesn’t believe that there is any deadline for preliminary engineering, which is consistent with my reporting. The issue is probably better explained as follows: Right now, Sound Transit doesn’t provide any funding to do preliminary engineering on an Ahola extension, and it would be easier to study the extension at the same time we plan the current streetcar plan. (Similar to how East Link is planning a connection between Overlake and downtown Redmond, even though it will probably be many years before that segment begins construction.)

However, Seattle’s Department of Transportation can’t study the Aloha extension without money to do so. It would make sense to ask ST to provide the funding for planning the extension since the streetcar budget is scheduled to come in millions under budget and the Mayor has said a top priority should be extending the line to serve north Broadway.  And if ST doesn’t give the city the opportunity, then the city could lose out on federal money since the extension won’t be “shovel-ready” for a future round of streetcar funding.

That’s the larger point: if ST doesn’t step up to the plate soon, no one will and the Aloha extension will most likely have to be entirely funded locally rather than with federal aid. And that means that the relatively cheap extension is unlikely to be built soon.

SDOT: Two-Way Broadway for First Hill Streetcar

SDOT's Recommended Alignment: Two-Way Broadway
SDOT's Recommended Alignment: Two-Way Broadway

Seattle’s Department of Transportation has recommended the Two-Way Broadway alignment for the First Hill Streetcar. The recommendation was given in a presentation to the interested parties Wednesday night, according to Richard Sheridan from the department. The recommendation was first reported by Central District News; an impressive scoop.

The park loop initially proposed, which would have had the streetcar route encircle Cal Anderson Park, was dropped because it “didn’t have a lot of advantages” and was “creating more concerns” than keeping the route on Broadway north of Union, according to Ethane Melone, who headed the recommendation process for SDOT.

The Two-Way Broadway alignment performed the best on most metrics the city measured; perhaps most importantly in this climate, it is expected to be the most frugal option. SDOT’s presentation also covered the cost of perhaps extending the Broadway line north from its planned terminus at John St north to Aloha: just $20 million, but some money would be needed to fund the design of the extension in the short term to make the exention “shovel-ready.”

“If that extension were funded by the early part of 2012,” Melone said, “it could be added to the construction contract, and completed at the same time or shortly thereafter.” He also noted that the quarter-mile extension could be completed “in a matter of months” regardless of when it’s funded. Mayor McGinn’s light rail package that will be sent to voters sometime next year could well include funding for an extension.

The exact configuration on Broadway is to-be-determined. The city will be looking at a proposal from the Capitol Hill Community Council for a two-way “cycle track” that is separated from traffic. A cycle-track would have little impact on parking, Melone said, but would require removing the center-turn lane from Broadway.

Some neighborhood groups are likely to be disappointed by the recommendation after heavy lobbying for a 12th Ave Couplet alignment, which this blog editorialized against. Melone told us that the stations being separated by distance and grade could have made the line “less intuitive” to ride and create “a perception of inconvenience.” First Hill hospitals hoping for alignments that pass closer to hospital entrances were probably expecting this decision after earlier analysis concluded their favored alignments were much more expensive than other alternatives.

SDOT made its recommendation to Mayor McGinn, who will in turn make a recommendation to the City Council, who has the final say. CHS reports that the mayor has said he’s leaning toward the Broadway alignment.