Fast Bus Service Now Is the Right Choice for SR 520



 

Light rail is a great way to provide transit service connecting dense urban communities.  That’s why the region has built it from Seattle to the airport, and is building more lines to Bellevue and Redmond over I-90 and north from downtown to UW and Northgate.  I’ve worked for more than a decade to bring this to reality, and will continue to do so.

At some point light rail might be a good addition to SR520.  But it is a corridor with many challenges for a light rail system.  Rapid bus transit service may provide a more flexible and effective form of high capacity transit for this project area.  Buses have the ability to collect riders from multiple points, and the routes can be modified as conditions change.  We can put bus connections to work in dedicated lanes by 2014.  That will reduce automobile use — and greenhouse gas emissions.

Or we can delay replacing SR 520 and leave transit commuters stuck in traffic – probably for the next one to two decades.

Almost 80% of Seattle voters supported Sound Transit 2 in 2008.  That plan puts light rail over I-90 and Bus Rapid Transit on 520 for very good reasons.

The 520 corridor between I-5 and I-405 has no dense urban communities to serve, and little prospect of creating any.  We’re not going to rezone Montlake for high rises.  Running rail on freeways is generally a bad idea unless you have no other choice.  That’s why the region runs Airport Link through downtown and the Rainier Valley instead of along I-5 – because it’s to connect Seattle residents to their homes and jobs, not just to get people to and from the airport.

The study done for Mayor McGinn ran a light rail line from Haller Lake to Sammamish.  There is no plan or engineering for that corridor.  There are difficult technical decisions about routes, tunnels, and crossing the Montlake cut, as well as a very large, uncertain, and unfunded cost.  And this route has not been studied sufficiently to know whether it serves enough riders to be justified and would be a priority in comparison to other regional needs. This route may also end up creating an incentive for sprawl and breaking the Growth Management Boundary by running a major transportation line to Sammamish.  And the possible options to connect to the UW Light Rail station or downtown may have additional impacts on our neighborhoods and the Arboretum.  Lines on paper may look appealing — until we fully understand the actual impacts.

Dedicated bus lanes, on the other hand, work beautifully on 520 because the buses can fan out to serve riders AND make quick crossings of the Lake where there are no passengers to pick up.  More than 600 buses currently cross 520 every day, and there is funding to increase that number.  The regional plan for SR520 is ready for implementation as soon as the final decisions are made and can begin operation in 2014.  It will provide a separate lane in each direction for buses and high occupancy vehicles, and is projected to dramatically increase transit/HOV use on the corridor, moving people rather than cars.

The state’s proposed plan for transit on SR 520 needs some improvement.  That’s why the City Council has focused on making the Montlake interchange work for transit, making good connections to the University light rail station and getting transit through the traffic congestion in that area, as well as ensuring that the HOV/transit lane will be managed to ensure that buses will move rapidly .  The State has welcomed our ideas, and we will work together through the next few months to make the specific designs work.

The Council reviewed Mayor’s McGinn’s concerns as to whether the corridor can support light rail, and concluded that minor refinements to the current design will make it possible for the region to decide that in the future.  The design, engineering, and funding issues will take time to consider.  Seattle’s priority should be to find ways to provide rail service to Ballard and West Seattle – heavily populated areas in the City that need this service – while we get great bus service going on SR520 as fast as possible.

In the thoughtful words of Seattle Transit Blog:  “Light rail would only go over 520 out of supposed convenience – but I think we can lay to rest now any notion that it would be convenient, and furthermore, it would probably represent a huge investment on Seattle’s part to build a new tunnel where we’ll already have one. For costs like that, both financial and political, why not do it right? First, let’s focus our attention on building transit from the city center to Ballard and West Seattle.”

It took years of work to stop proposed additional lanes for cars and get a 520 plan that dedicates lanes for bus and HOV and does not increase car lanes.  This was a hard-won victory for Seattle, for the environment, and for the region.  The Council cares about making transportation work in this region, and cares about reducing carbon emissions by getting more people on transit as fast as possible while connecting the region’s urban centers east and west of Lake Washington.  We are working aggressively to improve transit operations in the SR 520 project area and to maximize opportunities for people to make riding transit their first choice.

We’ve been through the distraction before of a well-intentioned plan for rail transit.  It was called the Monorail, and it failed because the hard on-the-ground work of actually planning a cost-effective system wasn’t done before we wasted millions of dollars trying to turn a line on a map into a real system.  Ultimately the voters had to pull the plug.  Let’s not delude ourselves again that drawing a line on the map replaces serious and thoughtful planning for real transit connections.

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Time April 28, 2010 at 11:41 am

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