Is it possible for Seattle to avoid an eight-lane road expanse on waterfront Alaskan Way, yet still bring more than 30,000 bus commuters to and from downtown?
The plans for Seattle’s waterfront boulevard include dedicated bus lanes, but city officials now say they must study leaving them out.
Any lane reductions would make the future Alaskan Way South narrower, and therefore safer and simpler to cross on foot.
But if buses are forced to mix with general traffic, that could aggravate delays for as many as 30,000 bus riders to and from West Seattle, White Center and Burien. They now ride on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, to be replaced by the long-delayed Highway 99 tunnel in perhaps April 2018.
Senior city staff insist the odds are low that they’ll remove the dedicated bus lanes, but they must look at that option, to comply with environmental laws.
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“The mayor’s priority will certainly be to have dedicated priority and transit lanes. That’s not a question in his mind,” said Andrew Glass Hastings, transportation adviser to Mayor Ed Murray.
But the Alliance for Pioneer Square, Feet First and Cascade Bicycle Club have urged the city to downsize an eight-lane segment from King Street to Yesler Way, derided by some citizens as a “highway on the waterfront.” Elderly and disabled people would be unable to cross in a single light cycle, says Feet First, a pro-walking group.
After all, a primary reason for building the $2 billion-plus tunnel, instead of a new viaduct, is to make the waterfront a nicer place to stroll.
“Could we provide the level of transit movement and reliability we need, and not provide dedicated lanes?” Marshall Foster, the city’s waterfront director, asked a City Council committee this week.
Plans now call for two general lanes and one bus lane each way, plus two left-turn lanes for northbound cars preparing to enter the Washington State Ferries terminal. Funding comes from a $290 million state allotment to demolish and replace the viaduct.
In a new wrinkle, Feet First endorsed the bus lanes Wednesday in a blog post. Rather than hinder buses, the group said, the state and city should consider just one general lane each way, or reduce ferry traffic lanes through online reservation systems.
With the arrival of Weyerhaeuser, a new streetcar line, growth in walk-on ferry riders and more downtown high-rises, more people will be walking around Pioneer Square, Executive Director Lisa Quinn said.
“There’s a lot of users being underrepresented and being underserved,” she said.
Transit demand is already surging. Fifty buses pass the south waterfront at peak hour, while Sound Transit light rail won’t reach West Seattle for 20 years or so.
Even with Alaskan Way bus lanes, official estimates show bus commuters losing time because the viaduct’s midtown exit at Seneca Street will disappear. Riders may endure three to four minutes of delay on the boulevard while crossing eight intersections, from the future stadium exit to Columbia Street.
To further degrade transit’s effectiveness would belie Gov. Jay Inslee’s call to fight global warming, as well as Murray’s declarations that the isthmus of Seattle has outgrown its capacity to absorb more car travel.
Foster said Seattle’s choices are constrained because this area is part of Highway 519, and the state insists on four traffic lanes plus the ferry entrance, including access for through traffic that can’t use the tunnel.
“We’re going to have 35,000 vehicles each day entering and exiting [Alaskan Way] downtown. That’s about triple the traffic we have today, so we need to accommodate that traffic,” Foster said.
“It’s a very hardworking street today; it will be more so in the future,” Foster said in a City Council briefing
Washington State Ferries insists two left-turn lanes are essential, to reduce backups on Alaskan Way that would add congestion for all users. “The two lanes help us get through the intersection quicker,” said Nicole McIntosh, terminal-engineering director. In other words, having only one left-turn lane would force a longer green arrow, and slow down all travel.
To make the wide crossing more pleasant, designers propose large trees, a 30-foot sidewalk on the inland side and landscaped medians, Foster said.
Transit lanes were drawn only because King County Metro Transit complained about initial plans in which curbside parking would double as a peak-only bus lane.
“This priority pathway will be essential to successfully moving people on transit, and we cannot afford to get it wrong,” County Executive Dow Constantine wrote in a 2010 letter to then-mayor Mike McGinn.
Most Highway 99 commuters entering downtown from the southwest ride Metro, said Victor Obeso, deputy general manager.
“We still strongly believe that the transit lanes are essential to that corridor,” Obeso said.
Diverting the viaduct buses to Fourth Avenue South would make them too slow, and building transit-only lanes on First Avenue South would be even more invasive to historic Pioneer Square, he said.