Seattle is heading into three weeks without the stretch of State Route 99 that runs through downtown, as the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) switches road connections over from the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct to a new tunnel, part of what has become known as the “Seattle Squeeze.” We’ve known this period was coming for a while, and even before the exact timing was first announced back in September, transportation officials have been repeating the same refrain for coping with dramatic traffic impacts: Plan your commute options early. Work from home. Take public transportation.
In preparation, both the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and King County Metro have taken steps to encourage transit use and shoulder increased capacity—but some transit advocates say that’s not enough.
Over the last few months, SDOT has been switching some lanes around to better prioritize not-cars. Back in August, Third Avenue’s transit- and bike-only hours expanded. Columbia Street has been transformed into a two-way transit corridor. Some downtown parking is being temporarily eliminated to open up more space. A free waterfront shuttle is running a couple more hours a day and sticking around until the fall. A partnership with Lyft offers discounts for rides to transit centers.
To get more West Seattle commuters, who rely heavily on SR-99, out of their cars, the county is running an on-demand shuttle to the Water Taxi and the transit hub at the Junction—and doubling Water Taxi service to keep commuters off the road.
But some changes, like all-door boarding along the Third Avenue transit corridor, aren’t even coming until March, when Seattle will still be feeling the crunch of multiple construction projects, but well after the tunnel opens to traffic. And not all changes make transit faster: As Seattle Transit Blog points out, an HOV lane is opening up to all traffic on a segment of I-5 south to better accommodate cars, and the buses being rerouted off 99 are likely going to be slower, although they’re getting a temporary bus lane. The official word from the city is for bus riders to leave up to an entire additional hour of buffer time.
According to transit advocates, the city and county have missed some critical solutions. In December the Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) coalition advocated for fast-tracking bus corridor improvements, prioritizing safe and reliable bike routes, and better-enforcing rules around sidewalk closures.
Friday, MASS volleyed a list of criticisms against the city, calling the city’s efforts “grossly inadequate.” The city, MASS says, has missed the mark on long-planned projects that support transit riders, bikers, and pedestrians—and the upcoming squeeze makes the timing especially terrible. Among them: putting the Center City Connector on hold, delaying certain bus rapid transit lines, finishing a tiny fraction of the city’s 2018 bike lane goals, and allowing a disruptive amount of sidewalk closures.
MASS includes the Seattle chapter of the Sierra Club, the Transit Riders Union, Cascade Bicycle Club, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, 350 Seattle, 500 Women Scientists Seattle, Seattle Subway, Seattle Transit Blog, and the Urbanist.
We asked if any of these changes could be implemented in time to make a difference in alleviating the viaduct-related strain. “Absolutely, and they’ve already proven that they can,” said Meg Wade, an organizer at 350 Seattle, a climate justice group. “The city just this week installed bus lanes [editor’s note: like the one on Fourth Avenue] demonstrating that they can plan and implement temporary bus lanes quite quickly.”
Another potential solution that’s not happening: Make transit free for these critical three weeks. The most vocal proponent of the idea recently has been Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, but it’s been floated before. (The county told Next City that a 25 percent farebox recovery rate means that Metro can’t afford to make this happen.)
One thing’s for sure: For anyone in a motor vehicle, be it a car, truck, or bus, the next few weeks are going to be difficult. But for those who are able, walking could really be the most efficient way to get around. Some bike groups are getting ready to show new bike commuters the ropes, too; Cascade Bicycle Club is offering group rides to show West Seattleites the best commuter routes.