City Hall

Council Signals Support for $1.07 Billion Waterfront Plan; Transit Advocates Raise Concerns

By Josh Feit August 6, 2012

The Seattle City Council just passed a resolution supporting a waterfront plan that will, assuming it's built and comes in on budget, cost $1.07 billion.

The biggest funding source is $420 million that would have to be raised through a special taxing district on downtown property owners (which could bring in as much as $250 million, according to the city); a new levy on property owners citywide; as well as "or other City funding, corporate, foundation and individual philanthropy, and the City’s General Fund," according to the fiscal note attached to today's resolution.

City council members and Mayor Mike McGinn (who, after all, unsuccessfully proposed the seawall ballot measure more than two and a half years ago) seem confident that the city will come up with the money to pay for the waterfront project.

However, this afternoon, transit advocates raised another concern: The city's plan would include transit-only lanes in both directions for just three hours a day---the morning rush hour period of 6 to 9. (Hence the lanes' unofficial name: "Flex lanes.")

On afternoons, only one northbound lane would be reserved for transit; the northbound lane would serve as an extra queuing lane for drivers accessing Colman Ferry Dock. Those lanes are needed to serve buses heading to and from the transit corridor on First Ave., most likely along Columbia St., since Pioneer Square residents have made it clear that the other option, accessing Third in one direction along Main St. and in the other along Washington, would bring an unacceptable number of buses into the neighborhood. (The Seattle Department of Transportation appears to have been swayed by this argument.)

The problem with subbing out a transit lane for a ferry queue in the evening is this: If a certain number of people (about 20,000-25,000, or around 550 buses a day, according to Metro representative Andrew Glass-Hastings, who testified at this afternoon's committee meeting) come in to downtown on transit , why wouldn't the number of people leaving downtown in the evening be the same?

In other words, why wouldn't you still need one lane in each direction---to get people to points south, like West Seattle, and points north, like Ballard?

SDOT spokesman Rick Sheridan says computer modeling has shown that traffic---particularly, traffic lining up to get on ferries at Colman Dock---will move most smoothly with an additional northbound ferry queuing lane in the evening peak hour.

And Heather McIntosh, SDOT's waterfront coordinator, says, "We have a lot of demands on the street and really limited space," adding that SDOT believes "we can accommodate transit with the two lanes in the morning and the one in the afternoon."

Not so fast. While Glass-Hastings acknowledges readily that SDOT "had a major challenge trying to balance all the competing needs on waterfront," he adds, "We are just asking SDOT to be more creative in use of that space," especially given that most of the future growth in trips to and from downtown is expected to be on transit---including Metro's RapidRide's C and D lines---not by car. So Metro (and transit advocates including Futurewise, whose King County program director Brock Howell also testified at today's meeting), is asking the city to turn the "flex lanes" into all-day transit-only lanes---in both directions.

"The reason why we’re asking SDOT for all-day transit priority [in both directions] is because it’s critical to making this transit pathway work," Glass-Hastings says. "The number of buses and the number of riders necessitate it."

Asked about the transit advocates' request, McIntosh responded by paraphrasing a sentence that has become a mantra among SDOT (and planning department) staffers: We can't give everyone everything they want. Our goal is to give everyone everything they need.

However, she added, the plan---currently at just 10 percent design---is "something that can evolve if we need it to. None of this is set in stone." However, she added, making the changes Metro is requesting would probably require getting rid of daytime parking along the street-level Alaskan Way---or an even wider street.

There's an irony here, too. Some transit advocates were among the loudest opponents of the tunnel plan, and the loudest proponents of tearing down the viaduct and replacing it with surface streets. But now, they find, they're about to lose (at least temporarily) one of the quickest arterials connecting West and Southwest Seattle to downtown.

Glass-Hastings acknowledges: "When the viaduct is removed, the quick and accessible transit access to downtown is removed as well. ... The viaduct is what it is, but it actually provides a pretty good transit pathway to downtown. When [buses are] having to run on surface streets, travel time suffers."

Macintosh says the city is starting preliminary engineering this fall, with the goal of completing environmental review next year and starting construction in 2016, when the viaduct comes down.
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