Bowing to local business pressure — and what it predicts will be a radically transformed transportation corridor thanks to the $120 million, 2.3-mile Madison Bus Rapid Transit project — the Seattle Department of Transportation has updated its long-delayed plans for improvements to the First Hill Streetcar following pushback business owners and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office. Despite complaints about the elimination of left-turns and the addition of red paint for a transit-only lane, SDOT still plans to alter traffic signals and implement a transit-only lane — eventually.
“Complex intersections where other vehicles might be making a left turn or otherwise blocking the intersection slows down the streetcar,” SDOT representative Ethan Bergerson said.
Last year, CHS reported on SDOT’s plans for potential changes to the First Hill Streetcar route to make the streets more efficient for the rail transit and, hopefully, boost ridership. But Capitol Hill businesses — led by the now-disolved Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce — and the mayor’s office pushed back on the proposals and the project has been stuck in neutral since.
SDOT officials say the department has since made changes to traffic signals and turns on Yesler in an effort to speed up that section of the First Hill Streetcar. Adjustments included restricting left turning vehicles from east and westbound directions during peak afternoon traffic times at Yesler and Boren, restricting left turning vehicles at Yesler and 12th, and synchronizing traffic signals at Yester and 14th.
Officials say SDOT now plans to make similar adjustments to the Broadway section of the streetcar, implementing changes as soon as this fall.
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Officials say they will also modify the traffic signal at the intersection with James to prevent streetcar delays. SDOT plans to restrict left-turns from northbound and eastbound directions at the Broadway to Harvard intersection, as cars turning left at the Harvard Ave intersection were also delaying the streetcar.
But the more controversial plan to add a streetcar-only lane between Pine and Madison intersections on Broadway have been put on hold, SDOT officials say, until the new Madison Rapid Bus Transit project has been completed and RapidRide G begins service in the summer of 2022.
“We looked at putting in the transit only lane right now, and we found it wouldn’t have the same kind of benefit it would have after the BRT improved Madison,” Bergerson tells CHS. “There is a larger opportunity to significant improvements in streetcar performance if we install transit-only lanes after BRT is installed on Madison.”
Altogether, the Broadway optimizations would cost around $50,000 to $75,000 to implement, SDOT has said.
The First Hill Streetcar opened in January 2016 after long delays and years of construction to begin service on the new line connecting Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill via First Hill. The 2.5-mile route shares streets with vehicular traffic and, as a result, is subject to slowdowns that also snarl buses and commuters in cars. The line was projected to serve more than 1.2 million riders in 2016, but only 840,000 passengers were tallied by SDOT’s estimates. About 3,500 riders were riding the streetcar daily last year, according to SDOT.
Sound Transit footed the bill for the $132 million First Hill route’s construction and has been on the hook for beginning operation costs of around $5 million per year as part of mitigation for the authority’s decision to not build a light rail station serving the First Hill neighborhood. The streetcar is managed by SDOT but operated by King County Metro.