After enduring a year in Pioneer Square traffic jams, more than 26,000 bus riders have finally caught a break, with a dozen routes moving into new Columbia Street bus lanes.
The rebuilt road provides one uphill and one downhill bus lane, connecting waterfront Alaskan Way to Third Avenue.
The new corridor, which opened Saturday, hosts bus routes C, 21x, 37, 55, 56, 57, 113, 120, 121, 122, 123, and 125, totaling 670 daily buses between downtown and West Seattle, White Center or Burien.
“The opening of Columbia Street is a very positive development. It’s almost like we’re on the way back to normalcy for downtown transit operations,” said Bill Bryant, King County Metro Transit managing director for service development.
Ferry riders will benefit because new stops will open at the base of Columbia Street, directly in front of Colman Dock. Bryant expects at least 200 new riders to catch the bus uphill into downtown there.
Seattle, Metro and the state spent $3.5 million to rebuild Columbia, which became spacious when demolition crews uprooted an old viaduct ramp last spring. Crews last week applied the red bus-lane paint city Traffic Engineer Dongho Chang calls “fresh Elmo.”
Since the Alaskan Way Viaduct closed last winter, detours and delays on First Avenue South depressed ridership by 3.3% or 885 fewer passengers, from 27,035 to 26,150 weekday boardings, new Metro data shows. Some switched to driving, while others telecommuted, rode a private bus or bicycled. Weekend bus use increased slightly.
Most losses happened on the RapidRide C Line. Morning trips sometimes took 50 minutes from Alaska Junction to South Lake Union. Buses on First Avenue South were required to use mainly the interior lanes of the bumpy four-lane road, to protect 130-year-old underground passages next to the curbsides.
Other roadwork at 35th Avenue Southwest reduced lanes and caused delays on the West Seattle side. However, Route 120 on Delridge Way Southwest gained 100 weekday boardings.
The most volatile congestion happened when Mariners baseball traffic mixed with buses on First Avenue. By August, transit directors detoured the detour, so outgoing buses used Fourth Avenue South and South Holgate Street in Sodo, blocked sometimes by freight trains.
Bryant predicts the Columbia Street route will save a couple of minutes, but for now Metro won’t shorten the printed schedules, which show a 35-minute trip from Delridge Way to downtown.
The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has added a transit-only left-turn signal to help uphill buses reach northbound Third Avenue. That corner has also been outfitted with a northbound ORCA fare-card reader and electronic arrival-time sign, to serve incoming C and 125 riders.
However, the agencies didn’t create any head-start signal or bypass lane north of the Highway 99 transit exit, to help buses reach waterfront Alaskan Way in morning congestion. Bus drivers will improvise to enter general traffic, and face occasional delays.
“We will continue to watch this area closely and work with our transportation partners to evaluate the need for traffic signal changes at the SR 99 offramp to S Dearborn St.,” SDOT spokesman Ethan Bergerson responded Friday. “Observing real-life traffic patterns will help us make a better informed decision about the most effective way to move buses through this intersection.”
Transit speed should improve further in 2021, when the city adds a bus lane each direction to Alaskan Way. That widening contributes to the future boulevard’s 111-foot-girth near the ferry dock — a virtual Mercer Street on the waterfront.
The shift also means visitors and workers reaching Pioneer Square will lose their temporary stop at First Avenue South near King Street, used by 1,000 daily riders in 2019. Some will need to backtrack from Columbia as in 2018.
Metro always planned to create new bus stops near King Street, but the area is unsafe to walk this spring during early waterfront roadwork, Bryant said. “There’s a good chance, later in 2020 we’ll be able to do that,” he said.