The Seattle Transit Blog's Bruce Nourish got hold of an internal Metro report studying what would happen if King County eliminated the ride-free area downtown---specifically, how eliminating the area would impact service times on downtown streets, including Third Ave., and the downtown Seattle transit tunnel.
According to the report, if the RFA were abolished tomorrow—without mitigation or service changes—bus operations on 2nd Ave, 4th Ave and 3rd Ave northbound would be slower but still acceptable; 3rd Ave southbound operations would be borderline acceptable, with no additional capacity for new service (such as the RapidRide C/D slated to start next year) and liable to tip over into failure in the event of DSTT closure or a traffic disruption downtown; and the transit tunnel would be hosed.

Specifically: In the downtown tunnel, travel times would be increased between two and eight minutes, and the tunnel would only be able to accommodate 50 to 52 buses an hour (compared to the 60 that use it every hour now). Fixing the delays would mean reducing the number of buses in the tunnel to between 40 and 45 an hour or increasing headways (the time between trains) on Sound Transit light rail. On surface streets, eliminating the ride-free area would "increase dwell time and corridor travel time [downtown], and will result in queueing problems at closely spaced bus stops." Conditions on southbound Third Ave would be "borderline acceptable" and "could break down in the event of an emergency tunnel closure." Travel times on other corridors would also increase, "without causing any major breakdown in the system."

Other highlights from the report:

• Operating hours without the ride-free area would increase by 40 a day systemwide, 16 of those in the transit tunnel.

• Those additional hours would cost approximately $890,000, or about half of the $2 million Metro spends to run the ride-free area currently. However, some of that would be offset by additional fare revenue; the report does not say how much additional fare it expects from eliminating the ride-free zone.

• Some of the extra costs could be offset by mitigation measures, including: Adjusting bus schedule times so that buses don't "bunch" at stops; put ticket vending machines or ORCA card readers at high-traffic stops downtown, so people don't have to pay as they board the bus; restrict traffic on Third Ave.; run fewer trains in the tunnel; and allow tunnel buses to board and unload anywhere along the platform.