Business Interests Take Aim At Critical North Seattle Transit Corridor Improvements

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A bus stop along a four lane busy road reading
The Route 40 Transit Plus Multimodal Corridor Improvement project would add bus-only lanes to both directions of Westlake Avenue N. (Photo by the author)

The North Seattle Industrial Association is seeking to block Route 40 bus lanes and pedestrian upgrades citing expected freight delays.

Route 40 had the third most riders of any bus in the county pre-pandemic. Running from Downtown Seattle through South Lake Union to the Fremont Bridge, up Leary Way to the heart of Ballard, through Crown Hill, Greenwood and terminating at Northgate, the route is identified as one of seven priority corridors to upgrade to RapidRide-level of service by Seattle’s Transit Master Plan and the second-highest ranking corridor of those seven in terms of new ridership potential if those upgrades are made.

Unlike other transit corridor upgrades promised with the Move Seattle levy that have been significantly delayed and scaled-back, Route 40 is still mostly on track timing-wise. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is moving forward with speed and reliability upgrades slated in 2024 even if RapidRide branding — which include fancier red buses and stops with off-board payment — is on hold.

Earlier this year, SDOT shared early concepts for the corridor in advance of the project achieving 30% design, the point when plans would be available for the entire corridor. Included were proposed bus-only lanes: in both directions on Westlake Avenue N, NW Market Street, and on a short segment of Fremont Avenue N. Bus lanes in one direction of traffic were also proposed for N 36th Street (southbound) and Holman Road NW and NW Leary Avenue (northbound). Most of Leary Avenue in Ballard would not see bus lanes, but would get a rechannelization, going from four lanes to three wider lanes, one a center turn lane. The agency considered a bus lane on N 105th Street but opted against moving it forward due to limited right-of-way, according to SDOT.

A map of Leary Way demonstrates the areas of the street impacted by the Route 40 Transit Plus Multimodal Corridor. Bus lanes are planned for Leary Way between 24th Avenue NW to 20th Avenue NW, while a road diet is planned for Leary Way between 20th Avenue NW to 17th Avenue NW.
The Route 40 Transit Plus Multimodal Corridor program would add a short bus lane to Leary but most of the corridor would be rechannelled to create fewer, wider lanes. (City of Seattle)

As the project has moved forward, new emails obtained by The Urbanist signal behind-the-scenes pushback against the project from some business interests north of the ship canal. This past May, following a presentation on the latest plans provided by SDOT to the Seattle Freight Advisory Board and to the North Seattle Industrial Association (NSIA), Eugene Wasserman, the President of NSIA, sent an email to the Route 40 project manager and SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe.

“The North Seattle Industrial Association is requesting that the Seattle Department of Transportation restart the Route 40 Mulitmodel [sic] Project from the beginning,” he wrote. “The current project is totally flawed since you did not include freight as a mode to be part of the project. Your total disregard of freight issues and the improving the conditions for the maritime/industrial sector in Ballard/Fremont requires you to restart. The Route 40 runs on several Major Truck Streets. It appears to the Maritime/Industrial community that SDOT is willing to sacrifice the viability of maritime/industrial businesses and their employees so that Amazon workers can get to their offices 5 minutes earlier.

That email followed an earlier one in late April where Wasserman outlined more specifically the problems with the project as seen by his side. “The major problem is the Project’s total lack of consideration of the impacts of the proposal on the Maritime/Industrial businesses in the BINMIC area. Of particular concern is the impact of the project on Leary Way and Westlake which are major freight routes. It is clear that the Project did not consider the impact particularly of the bus-only lanes on freight movement in the BINMIC. Removing the number of traffic lanes the project does will have a substantial impact on our maritime/industrial businesses and will assist in the increasing gentrification of our industrial area.”

A maps shows Westlake Avenue North between Valley Street and the Aurora Bridge where bus lanes will be added for route 40.
The Route 40 Transit improvement project includes bus lanes in both directions on Westlake Ave N. (City of Seattle)

From his position at NSIA, Wasserman has pushed back on transportation projects such as the Bicycle Master Plan, the Move Seattle Levy, and the Missing Link of the Burke Gilman Trail as one of the organizations in the coalition suing the City, the Ballard Alliance.

With the request for a restart in May, Mr. Wasserman included an 18-page report that NSIA commissioned from Claudia Hirschey, the same traffic engineer retained by the Ballard Coalition in its appeal against the Missing Link. It referenced a number of policy statements from various City documents, including the Comprehensive Plan, the Freight Master Plan, and Seattle’s Complete Streets ordinance. With each citation notes were included on how the policy could be interpreted to respond to freight mobility.

In one example, the report uses the fact that Seattle’s Pedestrian Master Plan doesn’t specifically include Leary Way NW as a corridor on its Priority Investment Network as justification for removing width from sidewalks allowing the street to be “reconfigured to provide for mixed-use pedestrian and bicycle facility or other designs and add width to travel lanes for truck mobility and safety on Leary Way NW.” In this way, the report can’t resist relitigating the Missing Link.

“The Route 40 corridor improvements preclude implementation of a bicycle facility on Leary Way NW. If the planned Burke-Gilman trail missing link on Shilshole Avenue NW is not be implemented due to lack of permits, (as well as truck mobility and safety issues) it should be recognized that the result is Ballard Way by default,” the NSIA report states.

An important aspect of the report is the idea that the changes made by the Route 40 project may not be acceptable even if they maintain current standards for freight mobility in the corridor. “The freight community would point out that the baseline analysis of 2015 [used in the Freight Master Plan] fails to acknowledge the significant impact to freight travel times and reliability in key freight corridors over the past 20 years. These impacts have occurred by increasing residential and employment density without improving infrastructure…Therefore, in project development, it may not be adequate to establish existing conditions as the baseline. A proposed project should be developed to improve truck mobility and safety for truck streets.” In other words, even in places where (for example) lane widths aren’t proposed to change with this project, if they are below the standard freight lane width of eleven feet they could be viewed as unacceptable.

A graphic shows the existing distribution of lanes on Leary Way. Currently there are four lanes of traffic that are ten and a half feet wide and one eight foot wide parking lane on each side of the street. In the proposed rechannelization, there will be a bus lane on the east side of the street, along with a parking lane and traffic lane. On the west side of the street is a turn lane, traffic lane, and parking lane.
Cross-section of the proposed channelization that would accompany the Route 40 project on Leary Ave between NW Market St and 20th Ave NW.

SDOT Defends the Project

SDOT responded with a technical memo of their own on July 19th. Director Zimbawe’s letter in response that proceeded the memo noted where SDOT was at in the design process for the project. “As we approach the Route 40 Transit-Plus Multimodal Corridor (TPMC) 30% design milestone, we have followed our existing practices, policies, and procedures,” he wrote. “The Route 40 TPMC project is adhering to all adopted street design standards — including design standards that facilitate freight vehicle movements — to the greatest extent possible and documenting any deviations from those standards.”

SDOT’s memo notes that NSIA’s analysis left out the Transit Master Plan, which identified Route 40 as a priority corridor for investment. “There are several segments of the Route 40 corridor where the designated freight network overlaps with the frequent transit network. At the project level, we work within the existing policy to balance these sometimes conflicting recommendations,” the memo wrote.

In conjunction with that response, SDOT has also produced a 310-page full traffic analysis, which was posted to the website for the project. The report shows an overall reduction in transit travel times over the length of the corridor of 8%, or nearly six minutes across all of the segments studied. Those travel time reductions are largest in Fremont and Ballard, but also significant along Westlake Avenue N where transit lanes are proposed in both directions. The report also notes that the slowest speeds on the corridor occur downtown, but that downtown is currently outside the scope of the study. Further downtown transit improvements that speed up buses downtown could improve Route 40 travel times even more.

SDOT's study found transit travle time reductions of 2.3 minutes in Westlake, 1.2 minutes in Fremont, 1.2 minutes in Ballard, and 1.0 minute in North Seattle for a total of 5.7 minutes overall, a 8% improvement on the 12.8 mile corridor from 71 minutes to 65.3 minutes after the build out.
The planned Route 40 upgrades would save almost six minutes, an 8% improvement. (Credit: SDOT)

The impacts to vehicles that aren’t buses are also detailed in the traffic analysis, with four intersections called out specifically as seeing a significant increase in queue lengths as a result of the project. During the morning peak hour, Fremont Place N / N 36th Street / Evanston Avenue N and NW 36th Street and 1st Avenue NW would see very long queues of traffic, per the report, with N 36th Street / Phinney Avenue N and the four-way intersection just south of the Fremont Bridge projected to see long queues during the afternoon peak hour. “As the project moves into design, design and/or operations modifications may be identified to reduce impacts to non-transit traffic,” the report notes.

Regarding idling emissions, the report includes an important caveat. “It should be noted, however, that the traffic analysis will not take into account changes to vehicle travel patterns or mode shifts induced by the proposed project. As a result, the analysis may over-report additional delay and/or vehicle idling increases at study intersections. Improvement to transit reliability, transit travel time, and non-motorized access to the Route 40 and other routes that share the corridor will make transit a more competitive mode choice compared to single occupancy vehicles (SOVs). A modal shift from SOVs to transit will help to reduce greenhouse gas emission, as well as potentially increase capacity for freight on the corridor.”

Undeterred NSIA Considering Appeal to Clean Air Agency

It doesn’t look like SDOT’s analysis has assuaged NSIA’s concerns. Eugene Wasserman, responding to a request from The Urbanist for comment, said NSIA stands by their request for a restart. “The project is worse than we thought after we received the information from SDOT. Our transportation consultant is currently going through the material.”

Reached via phone, he elaborated, saying that NSIA was considering asking the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency to intervene in the project on the grounds that idling traffic would negatively impact air quality. He called the project “seriously flawed” and said that it was not a “good public policy choice” to invest in a project for the “privileged.” He reiterated that transit improvements on Route 40 would only benefit Amazon workers in Crown Hill who could get to their offices five minutes sooner.

SDOT has yet to release full 30% designs for the project, which are complete. When asked how Wasserman and others have influenced the process so far, Ethan Bergerson of SDOT told me that “[t]he project team has been focused on the goals of the project which are to improve travel time and reliability of the Route 40. Because many segments of the Route 40 corridor are designated as major truck streets, maintaining freight mobility has also been a consideration when developing concepts. Feedback received from Wasserman, and other community members, prompted additional analysis to better understand and articulate if the proposed project will have any impacts on general-purpose and freight traffic.”

Bergerson said the additional requests for data from NSIA and others has not impacted the timeline of the project: the design portion of the project is expected to not be fully completed until 2023. “As we move into the design phase, we will work to ensure that truck movements at locations impacted by the project are adequately accommodated according to Streets Illustrated standards. We may identify additional steps to mitigate impacts to freight mobility during design.”

It remains to be seen if those steps will be enough to placate groups like the North Seattle Industrial Association who are pushing back on reallocating space for transit. We can likely expect the points of friction to persist up until the point of construction, if the dedicated space for transit isn’t walked back in the meantime.

Correction: An earlier version of this post mistakenly listed Eugene Wasserman as a past member of the Freight Advisory Board.

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Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has been writing for the blog since 2015. They report on multimodal transportation issues, #VisionZero, preservation, and local politics. They believe in using Seattle's history to help attain the vibrant, diverse city that we all wish to inhabit. In December 2020, Ryan started a three-month stint as editor of Seattle Bike Blog.

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RossB

It appears to the Maritime/Industrial community that SDOT is willing to sacrifice the viability of maritime/industrial businesses and their employees so that Amazon workers can get to their offices 5 minutes earlier.

That is total BS, and solid evidence that Wasserman has no clue who rides the 40. Thousands of riders on the 40 never get close to an Amazon office. More people ride it in the middle of the day and at night than during rush hour. The improvements also have more to do with midday delays (close to the bridge) then rush hour congestion (although they address both).

It is nothing more than a transparent attempt at class warfare by someone who is ignoring the thousands upon thousands of people who work low income jobs along the path of the 40. Or the thousands who are interested in learning a trade at the college anchoring the north end of this route. He likely doesn’t care about those workers, but is only interested in advancing his limited interests. Don’t be fooled by his inflamatory rhetoric: the vast majority of low income people in the area will benefit immensely by these improvements.

Jules James

I can understand a dedicated bus lane on downtown streets with multiple routes. But leaving 9 feet of industrial/commercial urban roadway empty just so a lose-money METRO bus can pass by every 10 minutes is density-inefficient to the point of nutz!

Ott Toomet

Agree. The first-best is to toll the street in a way that busses (and everyone else) can move with little delays.

I’d keep the “money-loosing” away from here though, it is a totally different topic.

sparkles

it’s a busy bus jules

RossB

Some of the improvements would help multiple routes. This includes all the buses that cross the Fremont Bridge (31, 32, 62). That alone means about 25,000 riders would benefit. In Leary you also have the 17 and 18 — another couple thousand riders. That doesn’t count the increase in ridership that comes from running faster, or the benefit to the network that comes from Metro saving service time.

So yeah, in terms of moving people or simply benefiting people, it is density efficient.

asdf2

Even more so, the benefits of improved bus reliability across the Fremont bridge even go beyond people riding the bus across the Fremont bridge. It’s also everyone who gets on such a bus anywhere on the route *after* it crosses the bridge. This includes such as like Mercer/Dexter to downtown, Wallingford to UW, even trips as far away as Ballard to Northgate (the 40 is a long route) or Magnusson Park to Lake City (because the 31/32 thru-routes with the 75).

So, even just counting all the people on the bus as it goes through the new bus lanes actually significantly undercounts the people who directly benefit from them.

Even more broadly, more reliable travel times allow Metro to remove padding from the schedule, which potentially allows the same routes to be run at the same frequency with fewer buses and drivers, which makes Metro a better steward of its taxpayers’ money. It boggles my mind how people like to whine about how Metro wastes money, but refuse to back street improvements necessary to minimize this waste.

asdf2

The impact that bus lanes have on cars is really a lot less than it seems. When the buses run in mixed traffic, cars get stuck behind them every time the bus stops, and have to merge over into the other lane, so you never really have the full capacity of two car lanes per direction anyway.

Also, the vast majority of the time, Leary Way is not clogged up, so having one the lanes be a bus lane does not impact drivers one bit. What it does do during off-peak hours is improve safety by effectively narrowing the street. With two lanes, drivers who want to speed can weave around drivers who don’t, which is quite dangerous. With one lane, drivers who want to go 50 mph get stuck behind someone going 35 mph and are forced to go 35 mph too. Of course, the really crazy drivers might decide to illegally use the bus lane as a passing lane. But, many won’t.

Russell Jimmies

I live for the inflated sense of importance displayed by the North Seattle Industrial Association lmao. Who’s going to tell them that their contributions to the local economy are no longer significant enough to justify such demands? Time to pack up and head elsewhere, people.

Sam

Yeah, those blue collar industries should leave town if they don’t like our big tech transit bias.

RossB

Tech transit Bias? It is nice to know that your trolling skills haven’t been lost in the transition to this website. So, dear Sam, what exactly are the tech biases found within this route, or any other part of our transit system?

Sam

Did you read the entire post? Did you see where that guy who heads that place said that thing? Here’s his quote. “It appears to the Maritime/Industrial community that SDOT is willing to sacrifice the viability of maritime/industrial businesses and their employees so that Amazon workers can get to their offices 5 minutes earlier.“ He’s in the middle of this issue, and he says there’s a bias.

RossB

That’s your evidence? Some guy — with an obvious bias — makes a claim, so therefore it is true? Wow, Sam, I didn’t realize you were that gullible. Allow me to sell you a bridge — I assure you that you will make a ton of money from the bridge. See, it is in bold, so you know it is true.

A Joy

I highly doubt that even 10 percent of those who use the 40 are Amazon employees heading to jobs in SLU. Wasserman may indeed be in the middle of this issue, but with hyperbole like that he is clearly part of the bias, and therefore what he says should be taken with a grain of salt.

asdf2

I think ultimately, the decision of what types of businesses the Ballard land is used for should, within reason, be up to the free market. If an industrial business wants to use the land, that’s fine, but the city should not artificially “reserve” land as industrial-use only and block all other use. That kind of logic was a relic of the 1980’s when jobs largely meant factories, which is not the case anymore.

That said, a lot of the industrial land probably has environmental/soil contamination issues and reclaiming the land for another purpose would be very expensive, possibly prohibitively so. I would not expect the soil underneath a gas station for boats to be just as polluted as the soil underneath a gas station for cars.

Russell Jimmies

Many of these businesses like to tout how long they’ve been in continuous operation. By that logic, shouldn’t they be responsible for cleaning up the messes they’ve made? Maybe the real answer is dissolving these businesses and selling their assets to pay for the environmental clean up.

seaguy

Elsewhere as in China like so much of our industrial industries have done? We have seen how that has had a negative effect during the pandemic.

Russell Jimmies

The land area of the United States 3.797 million square miles. There’s plenty of space for these businesses to move to within our country. They don’t need to be taking up precious space in a rapidly densifying urban area. We take pains to talk about the ‘impact’ that expanding public transit and density have on industrial business but never the impact that such businesses have on the residents of Seattle by virtue of their continued use of space no longer adequate for their operation. Additionally, what sort of economic benefit do they really provide? They seem a lot more like quaint curiosities than meaningful enterprises anyway. I don’t think the state should be protecting them via zoning laws; we aren’t talking about a historic district, just a historic ‘state of mind’.

Ryan DiRaimo

When the city proposed a moratorium on Aurora for self storage projects until the city voted on the rezoning of the urban village, Eugene testified at Council that they “didn’t know what they were doing” and outright accused them of being insane. At one point even making the same anti-Amazon tech worker remark alluding that the city just wants to build expensive apartments for “Amazon workers” to live in.

Eric

I certainly wouldn’t mind having SDOT study the possibility of some joint freight/bus lanes. My gut instinct is that freight is a small enough fraction of the total traffic on many of these streets that letting trucks use the bus lane wouldn’t cause transit riders to experience any undue delays, and getting trucks out of general purpose lanes would speed up freight as well. Could be a win-win!

asdf2

I think it would definitely be worth a study, and a bus/freight lane could very well be a reasonable compromise between the two interests. The only catch is that, in order to make it work, the bus stops need to be at the far side of intersections. Otherwise, a single vehicle ahead of the bus waiting at the light delays the bus by an entire light cycle.

RossB

Most of the bus lanes are BAT lanes anyway, so that is really an issue for only a handful of places (intersections that don’t allow right turns). Otherwise, a bus can be stuck behind a car trying to turn right. This is why Metro rarely puts bus stops before intersections — even when there are BAT lanes.

Eugene Wasserman

Since I was quoted in the article, I like to add some corrections to this story.

As far as I know, I was never appointed to the Seattle Freight Advisory Board.

My comments were not behind the scenes. I wrote an email with cc’s to SDOT staff, several labor unions, and Councilmember staff. I do not take it to media because we prefer to work with SDOT staff. Rather than discussing our differences in the media.

Actually, SDOT staff developed this project behind the scenes. Until recently, the North Seattle Industrial Association, the Fremont Chamber, and the Ballard Alliance did not know about the project. SDOT did not include any of these groups in the development of the project.

Claudia Hirschey, our transportation consultant, has extensive experience in freight mobility. She actually has more extensive experience in bus rapid transit planning, working for SDOT and Sound Transit.

One important point not in your article is that the Fremont Chamber of Commerce and the Ballard Alliance have many issues with the Route 40 project. They feel that the project will negatively impact their beloved business districts. The opposition to the Route 40 project is not just around freight mobility.

sparkles

As a Ballardite, frequent 40 user, and supporter of the ballard alliance i would love to hear why they are against these improvements.

Freight is important but so are people. The 40 is an extremely busy bus and every single bus that’s delayed can easily affect hundreds of people, and not just “Amazon office workers”.

Michael

I live in Ballard’s central business district, regularly ride Route 40 (and I don’t work at Amazon) and I’ve appreciated the Ballard Alliance’s work to support local neighborhood business during the pandemic. I’m a little surprised that the Ballard Alliance was caught off guard by SDOT’s outreach around improving Route 40 and didn’t know about this project “until recently.” I took the survey and attended planning sessions earlier this year. If the Ballard Alliance somehow missed this — there were lots of signs posted all along Route 40 bus stops encouraging feedback — then that’s a disservice to the community and businesses they serve. If local residents have been paying attention to and engaged in major transportation discussions that have been ongoing in the neighborhood, like improving service on Route 40 and Route 44, why hasn’t the Ballard Alliance?

Ryan DiRaimo

Just a very active and vocal participate of the Freight Advisory Board

Simon

Thanks for the update!