Route 44 is a workhorse, but it’s far from a racehorse. 9,300 daily riders pack themselves into the lumbering beast of burden and suffer the route’s sluggish pace and unreliability. Running east-west 5.3 miles across town from Husky Stadium to the Chittenden Locks, the Route 44 is a vital lifeline between the University District and Ballard. At three drop-in sessions this week, riders will give feedback on plans to improve service in 2023.

The first session is today (November 19th) at the UW Bookstore in the U District from 2pm to 3:30pm. The second is tomorrow in Leif Erikson Hall from 6pm to 7:30pm, and the third is Thursday, November 21st at Wallingford Community Senior Service Center.

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) says it will consider the following upgrades to the corridor:

  • Dedicated bus lanes and queue jumps;
  • Signal upgrades (e.g., transit signal priority);
  • Road channelization changes and/or turn restrictions; and
  • Safety, pedestrian access, and intersection improvements.

The Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) coalition is pushing the City to add dedicated bus lanes along key Route 44 stretches in the U District and Ballard. The U District bus lanes will become even more important as a surge of light rail riders arrive in 2021 with the opening of U District Station. A more north-south-oriented city, Seattle doesn’t have many frequent crosstown bus routes, and the ones it does have are plagued by congestion and reliability issues (cough: Route 8). With smart upgrades, Route 44 could be the exception and show that Seattle can excel at crosstown bus service.

MASS Coalition is pushing for bus lanes for the Route 44 throughout the University District. Red line indicates a NE 45th Street bus lane from Latona Ave NE to 15th Ave NE, and a 15th Avenue NE bus lane from NE 45th St south to NE Pacific St. (Google Map overlay by author)
The MASS Coalition is pushing for bus lanes for the Route 44 throughout the University District. Red line indicates a NE 45th St bus lane from Latona Ave NE to 15th Ave NE, and a 15th Ave NE bus lane from NE 45th St south to NE Pacific St. See MASS’s list of high priority bus lanes here. (Google Map overlay by author)

What is not being considered at this time is RapidRide branding, which includes red upgraded articulated buses, red upgraded bus stops, and off-board payment. The City promised a full “RapidRide+” upgrade of Route 44 with the Move Seattle Levy, which passed in 2015 with 58.7% of the vote. Seven new RapidRide corridors were pledged in all. But as for keeping that promise, a number of obstacles emerged.

A brief trip down nightmare lane

After Move Seattle passed, construction costs continued to escalate rapidly in red-hot Seattle, Donald Trump got elected and gutted federal transit grant programs, and then-Mayor Ed Murray spent 2017 battling back against multiple allegations of sexual abuse before resigning in September 2017 after the fifth claim surfaced.

This set up the year of four SDOT heads in 2018, as newly elected Mayor Jenny Durkan pushed out Scott Kubly without a replacement director ready–and she went through two interim directors before finally selecting Sam Zimbabwe to fill the role at the end of the tumultuous year. Without permanent leadership, the transportation agency struggled to build momentum in 2018–more often backtracking or delaying.

Even an agency humming along like a well-oiled bicycle on a straight away would have struggled with the headwinds it was facing. But for a City led by four different transportation directors in a year’s time it was debilitating. The Mayor began floating a “Move Seattle Reset” in the spring of 2018 to address shortfalls in the transit, bicycle, and pedestrian budgets. By September, it was clear that the Move Seattle Levy would no longer deliver Route 44, Route 40, and Route 48 as RapidRide lines and the four remaining corridors would have delayed timelines.

SDOT's project map indicates the many key connections with other transit lines. The crosstown route intersects many major routes, which tend to be north-south in hourglass-shaped Seattle. (SDOT)
SDOT’s project map indicates the many key connections with other transit lines. The crosstown route intersects many major routes, which tend to be north-south in hourglass-shaped Seattle. (SDOT)

For Route 44 (and 40 and 48, too), what we get instead is lesser upgrades. Still, the changes could greatly improve service and quality of life for riders if they focus on the highest impact areas, which center around freeing buses as much as possible from traffic congestion.

RapidRide Rollout Schedule after "Reset"

RapidRide Corridor1st RevisionReset DateExisting Route2015 Daily Ridership2016 Daily RidershipPlatform Hours
Madison "G"20212021123,5003,30084
Delridge "H"202020211208,7008,600226
Rainier20212024711,50010,800255
Roosevelt20212024705,3007,500182
Market/45th St2022cut?447,5008,400167
Fremont2023cut?4010,60011,400284
E 23rd Ave2024cut?4811,2005,500183
West Seattle20122012C8,80011,100289
15th Ave NW20122012D11,80014,300256
Aurora Ave20142014E15,80017,000299

The U District and Ballard bus lanes serve this purpose and they are relatively cheap to add. The biggest cost drivers for RapidRide projects are procuring new branded vehicles, repaving (especially if drainage or curbs are affected), and upgrading stops. Simply painting the outside lanes bus-only can speed up service without hitting those cost centers.

We have to get this right. Sound Transit isn’t planning crosstown light rail so the City and Metro are on their own. Despite its reliability issues, Route 44 is seeing rapid growth. Ridership averaged 7,500 daily riders in 2015, while it’s averaging 9,300 today. Rapid population growth in Ballard, Fremont/Wallingford, and the U District continues to drive up transit demand, as does climbing enrollment at the University of Washington. Demand in the Ballard-to-U District corridor is so strong, I even argued for a second frequent bus corridor along the waterfront. But first let’s get this Route 44 upgrade right.

Here again are the drop-in sessions. The project website is here. You can also reach SDOT Community Outreach Lead Darrell Bulmer at Darrell.Bulmer@seattle.gov.

UNIVERSITY DISTRICT
Tuesday, November 19
UW Bookstore
4326 University Way, Seattle 98105
2 – 3:30pm

BALLARD
Wednesday, November 20
Leif Erikson Hall
2245 NW 57th St, Seattle 98107
6 – 7:30pm

PHINNEY RIDGE & WALLINGFORD
Thursday, November 21
Wallingford Community Senior Service Center
4649 Sunnyside Ave N #140, Seattle 98103
6 – 7:30pm

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a non-profit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.