The future of Eastlake Avenue: SDOT multimodal study poses difficult tradeoffs

Issues in SDOT’s proposals to redesign Eastlake Ave. to accommodate a “rapid ride” bus line and a barrier-separated cycle track

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is now engaged in a study of redesigning Eastlake Avenue for a streetcar or a “rapid ride” bus line and a protected bike lane (as explained below, SDOT has said that it does not intend to recommend a streetcar, although the study apparently could enable a streetcar to be substituted for a bus line in the future). The project web site is http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/RooseveltHCT.htm, where you will find a lengthy Existing Conditions report and the documents from a series of SDOT open houses.

SDOT’s decisions on these topics are moving swiftly, and it is getting urgent for the Eastlake Community Council and the neighborhood to work out a preferred position so that these decisions don’t pass us by. The ECC board is intensively looking at these questions, and welcomes your suggestions, to info@eastlakeseattle.org. Below are links to letters that ECC has written to SDOT, responses that ECC has received from SDOT. ECC is disappointed that the first three SDOT response letters were on the whole not very substantive and were somewhat dismissive of our major concerns. We hope that by its actions SDOT will provide fuller and better response in the near future.

(1) January 7, 2016 ECC letter to SDOT (click here for the letter) expressing concern that both options currently on the table would eliminate the center turn lane along with its landscaped median islands; the letter outlines negative impacts for traffic flow and safety, transit, truck loading, bicycles, and pedestrians from loss of the center turn lane. Click here for the SDOT response letter.

(2) January 11, 2016 ECC letter to SDOT about various issues: Click here. Click here for the SDOT response letter.

(3) January 29, 2016 ECC letter to SDOT about parking issues: Click here. Click here for the SDOT response letter.

(4) July 19, 2016 ECC letter to SDOT about various issues: Click here. Click here for a Sept. 28 SDOT e-mail response.

The Eastlake Community Council has long supported efforts to improve transit and bicycling in and through our neighborhood. However, Eastlake Avenue is only 50 feet from curb to curb, and so efforts to facilitate transit and bicycling must be balanced with efforts to protect and improve safe traffic flow and the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists in crossing Eastlake Avenue. It is also important to protect other neighborhood streets from cut-through traffic; and to preserve or increase parking and preventing additional parking demand.

In the proposed transportation levy that was passed by the voters Nov. 3, the Mayor and City Council didn’t propose extending the South Lake Union streetcar along Eastlake Avenue to the University District—largely because the cost would be many times that of “bus rapid transit.” The levy made $104 million available for “seven transit plus multimodal corridor projects, redesigning major streets with more frequent and reliable buses, upgraded paving, signals and other improvements to improve connectivity and safety for all travelers, whether walking, biking, driving, or taking transit.”

The Mayor’s March “Move Seattle” (p. 56) proposed the “Roosevelt to Downtown Complete Street” that would include “bus rapid transit” and a barrier-protected “cycle track” for two-way bicycle travel through Eastlake. However, the levy ordinance that the City Council passed on June 29 and which the voters approved on Nov. 3 doesn’t specifically require that it be among the seven corridors funded. SDOT is now saying that $30 million is available for the Roosevelt to Downtown Complete Street.

With new funding (such as from the federal government), from reallocation of the transportation levy funds (as the City Council can do), or a local improvement tax (such as goes to the South Lake Union streetcar), the streetcar alternative would become more viable. For now, it is not recommended by SDOT’s Roosevelt to Downtown Corridor study (which favors a “bus rapid transit” alternative); but so far the study seems to be carrying forward the streetcar as a valid alternative rather than rendering it ineligible for future adoption.

SDOT delayed the Roosevelt to Downtown Corridor study until passage of the Nov. 3 levy, and shortly after it posted on the project web site (seattle.gov/transportation/roosevelthct.htm) extensive documentation on the existing conditions, and then held two open houses in December at which two options were unveiled.

A major question in the Roosevelt to Downtown Corridor study has been whether a streetcar line or rapid transit buses would take an exclusive lane in each direction. The concerns expressed by many Eastlakers against taking two lanes for exclusive use by transit had a definite impact. Neither SDOT option as unveiled in December would take a lane of Eastlake Avenue exclusively for transit, as SDOT would do on parts of Fairview Avenue North south of Mercer. Federal law requires that only half the mileage of a federally subsidized bus rapid transit route have exclusive bus lanes. Eastlake Avenue is less than half the mileage of the corridor, and so exclusive transit lanes could be taken downtown and north of the Ship Canal while not doing so in Eastlake.

On January 7, the Eastlake Community Council wrote to SDOT (click here for the letter) expressing concern that both options would eliminate the current center turn lane along with its landscaped median islands; in the letter ECC requests that SDOT include as a publicly analyzed option one that keeps the center turn lane. As outlined in the ECC letter, the center turn lanes were introduced by SDOT with ECC support beginning in the 1980s for safety and to facilitate traffic flow, as drivers turning left between Eastlake Avenue and side streets are not in the way of oncoming traffic. Also, the center turn lanes provide a refuge for pedestrians and bicyclists who are crossing Eastlake Avenue, and they provide a form of loading zone for trucks.

The Eastlake Community Council board has come to the tentative conclusion that improving bicycle safety on Eastlake Avenue is too important not to add some kind of protected bike lane on Eastlake Avenue. Removing most bicycles from the motor vehicle lanes will help motor vehicle traffic and buses move more quickly. The board believes that alternative routes on other streets than Eastlake Avenue for a protected bicycle lane would have greater impacts and would not be taken by many cyclists.

A protected bike lane may be oversubscribed from the day it opens, and alternative routes will also need to be identified—among them: (1) Boylston Ave. E. (connecting to Eastlake Avenue via the pathway under I-5 between Allison St. and E. Shelby St.; and/or via the Roanoke St. bridge and Harvard Ave. E.); (2) Lakeview Blvd; (3) in the Colonnade area under I-5; (4) on Minor Avenue East (as recommended by the 1998 Eastlake Neighborhood Plan); and (5) Fairview Ave. E.’s Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop on Fairview Ave. E.

On-street parking on Eastlake Avenue will be difficult to maintain under almost any scenario for improving the conditions for bicycles and transit. Although improved bus service and increased bicycle trips will bring new customers and easier commutes for employees, the businesses along Eastlake Avenue that have depended upon on-street parking there will need to find it on side streets. SDOT has done a parking utilization study only for Eastlake Avenue, not for the other neighborhood streets, and ECC is urging SDOT to do such a survey in weighing the corridor project’s impacts.

The Eastlake Community Council’s longtime support for our neighborhood’s local businesses is reflected in the design of Eastlake’s restricted parking zone (RPZ), which is the most business-friendly in the City (it currently allows business customers and employees to park on side streets for two or four hours without a permit). The ECC board is exploring all means to increase or minimize the loss of on-street parking, consistent with improving bicycle and transit conditions. For example, ECC has been working for several years to reverse the City Council’s unfortunate removal of on-site parking requirements for new commercial and residential buildings. Suggestions are welcome and needed, to info@eastlakeseattle.org.

A current issue that would become more urgent with almost any option for improving bicycle and transit conditions on Eastlake Avenue is a tendency for disruptive cut-through traffic from Eastlake Avenue to divert to the neighborhood’s five other north-south neighborhood streets and the cross-streets to reach them. The ECC board sees it as a high priority to prevent increases in cut-through traffic and to reduce the cut-through traffic from current levels.

The Eastlake Community Council board welcomes dialogue with community members on the difficult tradeoffs in all options for the future of Eastlake Avenue. Please send your views and suggestions to info@eastlakeseattle.org.

How and where to comment to public officials

Comments on the Roosevelt to Downtown High Capacity Transit (HCT) should be send to City officials (and please send a copy to ECC at info@eastlakeseattle.org). Comments directly to SDOT can be filed on-line at http://www.roosevelthctfeedback.org or by e-mail to RooseveltToDowntown@Seattle.gov. Although Mayor Murray does not accept public comment by e-mail, you can comment on-line via http://www.seattle.gov/mayor/get-involved/contact-the-mayor, by fax to 206-684-5579, or by U.S. mail via P.O. Box 94726, Seattle, WA 98124-4726. The City Councilmembers are sally.bagshaw@seattle.gov, tim.burgess@seattle.gov, lorena.gonzalez@seatttle.gov, bruce.harrell@seattle.gov, lisa.herbold@seattle.gov, rob.johnson@seattle.gov, debora.juarez@seattle.gov, mike.obrien@seattle.gov, and kshama.sawant@seattle.gov. U.S. mail address is P.O. Box 34025, Seattle, WA 98124-4025; fax is 206-684-8587. Please share your message and any replies with ECC at info@eastlakeseattle.org, or c/o ECC at 117 E. Louisa St. #1, Seattle 98102-3278. ECC also welcomes questions and comments.

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