Bus Tunnel Rolls Into Second Year -- Despite Problems, Downtown Project Is Proving To Be An Underground Hit

A year ago, anyone with good legs and lungs could keep up with the long line of buses that inched bumper to bumper along Third Avenue every weekday afternoon.

But no more.

Since Metro Transit's downtown bus tunnel opened a year ago, many of those Third Avenue buses have disappeared, thinning surface-traffic congestion during rush hour and forcing pedestrians to scramble to catch a bus on the street.

For the Metro bus tunnel it's been a year of gains: More and more buses and people are using the tunnel and the $481 million tube is meeting many expectations.

It's also been a year of problems: Buses that don't perform well, leaky station walls, technical problems and state delays in completing long-planned links with interstate freeways.

Generally, bus patrons praise the tunnel and its unique dual-power buses. They give the system good marks after a year of operation. Commuting is faster and less nerve-jangling because the big coaches don't have to contend with congested traffic and stoplights in downtown Seattle.

"I like 'em, I think they're faster," said Karmen TenKley, who works in the King County Courthouse. "I probably shave 10 minutes off my trip to work in the morning."

Phil Smith, who lives in Seattle's Ravenna neighborhood, said the new system is more convenient and faster because it competes with less traffic.

Metro officials give the project good grades, too.

"There have been no major disappointments," said Vladimir Khazak, the Metro engineer who supervised construction of the 1.3-mile tunnel. "The project came out as good as they come."

Richard Sandaas, executive director of Metro, said tunnel operations will improve as some related highway projects are completed next year. "But I give pretty high marks to it now," he said.

Engineering and design associations have honored the bus tunnel, the only one of its kind in the nation. And Metro won plaudits from Sunset magazine in a recent article about Seattle.

But not every rider gives Metro a gold star.

King County Councilwoman Cynthia Sullivan, who had opposed the tunnel, said she has ridden tunnel buses "two or three times" in the past year.

"My impression is that at lunch time it was empty," she said. "It was supposed to be at capacity when it opened.

"I think it is beautiful," Sullivan said of the tunnel stations. But "I am not sure that the amount of use it gets is worth it."

Beverly Hoppe, a North Seattle resident, said she has "mixed feelings" about tunnel service. "When things operate smoothly, things are great, but it seems that at least once a week something happens" to a bus.

King Yee of Federal Way said the one advantage he has noticed is that buses are on time more often than they were before the tunnel opened. But he doesn't think that's worth the $481 million investment.

And some veteran tunnel drivers are frustrated and troubled by Metro's management of the underground system. The drivers complain it's not being operated according to design. They argue new drivers are given insufficient training, particularly in driving under trolley wire, and complain that no one seems to be in charge.

With an increasing number of inexperienced and part-time drivers assigned to tunnel routes during rush hours, veterans fear delays and blockages. One driver said some of the quirks of the Breda buses can fool inexperienced drivers into thinking they have broken down when they haven't.

"It works," one experienced driver said of the tunnel system. "But it could work much better."

Metro officials are pausing to reflect on a year's use of the bus tunnel.

Some highlights:

-- About 28,000 trips are made by riders through the tunnel each day - including about 6,200 trips made by riders who use tunnel buses for errands and for going to lunch in the downtown free-ride zone. Metro estimated it would carry about 32,000 daily passengers soon after the tunnel opened. But that goal won't be reached until next year because Breda failed to deliver a full fleet of buses on time. (Systemwide, Metro carries about 250,000 riders daily.)

-- For those passengers who ride the full length of the tunnel, bus trips have been shortened by about 12 minutes. A year ago, it took a bus nearly 20 minutes to travel the tunnel route on surface streets; a tunnel bus whizzes through in about 8 minutes.

-- Ridership has increased on some routes as riders learn about faster, easier trips, although systemwide gains in ridership are below forecasts.

Patronage on routes through the tunnel serving the University District and northeast Seattle has jumped 25 percent in the past year. Ridership on tunnel buses linking Seattle with Kent and Auburn has increased 22 percent.

-- Of the 5,137 bus trips scheduled daily for the entire Metro system, 688, or 13 percent, have been assigned to the tunnel.

-- Before the tunnel, 190 Metro buses served Third Avenue stops during the peak afternoon rush hour, from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Today, 86 buses travel Third in that time.

-- Serious water leaks in the Pioneer Square and University Street stations have been controlled, and water no longer splashes onto walkways. Metro is testing a "fix" for similar leaks in the Westlake Station.

-- The technically complex Breda tunnel buses are becoming more reliable as problems are identified and fixed. The buses now average about 2,000 miles between service calls, a doubling of trouble-free driving in recent months.

Metro's standard trolley buses have about the same service record, while diesel coaches go several times farther between problems.

But some veteran drivers who volunteered for tunnel service are choosing to return to surface routes because they say the big Italian-built buses are still unreliable. They tell administrators they like the tunnel and will exercise their seniority and return to tunnel duty when performance improves.

This has increased Metro's operating costs because it has had to train more people for tunnel work.

Although 20 Metro routes now are assigned to underground routes, the $481 million tunnel system still is not working at capacity. More routes will be added to the tunnel run in the coming year, but the agency won't be able to push it to its maximum until it buys more buses to supplement the 236 dual-power coaches now in its tunnel fleet.

It is hoped travel time will shrink even more in a few months as a package of planned highway improvements is completed and linked to the tunnel.

A busway running from the International District Station to South Spokane Street will be available to Metro buses in November. That will save three minutes in travel time for South King County commuters, said Jack Lattemann, a Metro service planner.

(The recent opening of bus and car-pool lanes in southbound Interstate 5 also trimmed travel time for southbound transit riders by a couple of minutes.)

In February, Metro buses will begin using new ramps connecting the tunnel with Interstate 90, eliminating the pokey connection via South Dearborn Street. That will trim two or three minutes from the commute between Seattle and Eastside communities and is expected to boost ridership on Metro buses.

Rick Walsh, a former bus driver who now is deputy director of transit, said the tunnel still has things that need to be fixed and that Metro has a $2.4 million budget for improvements over the next few years. Khazak says there always will be something to do in the tunnel.

Some tunnel improvements on Metro's work schedule:

-- Better signs in the five stations. Only veteran bus riders can find their way around easily; tourists often are baffled.

-- Elimination of "dead spots" in coverage of public-address speakers and TV cameras in tunnel stations.

-- A speeding of the process by which buses switch from diesel power (which they use on city streets) to electric (which powers the coaches through the tunnel).

-------------------- METRO TUNNEL TIDBITS --------------------

Congestion eased ----------------

Metro schedules 5,137 bus trips daily; 688, or 13 percent, are in the tunnel. A year ago, between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. daily, the peak afternoon rush hour, Metro assigned 190 buses to Third Avenue routes. Today, only 86 buses operate on the surface street during the peak commute hour.

Buses on Third Avenue


1990 1991

---- ----

190 86

Getting around --------------

About 28,000 commuters now ride tunnel buses. An estimated 6,200 additional people ride the buses during the day just to get around downtown, going to lunch at Westlake Center or in the International District, for example.

How buses are used ------------------

All 236 of the Italian built Breda buses have been delivered and accepted by Metro; 132 are assigned daily to the tunnel; 40 are held for use as spares; 10 are used for training; and the rest are being refitted with modifications identified during prototype testing and first year of use. All will be in regular use next year.

56% 132 buses used daily tunnel

23% 54 buses being refitted

17% 40 buses used as spare

4% 10 buses training

An increase in ridership ------------------------

Ridership has increased significantly on some tunnel routes as patrons learn about faster service. On the 71, 72, 73 routes linking downtown, the University District and Northeast Seattle, ridership is up 25 percent. Route 150, connecting downtown and Auburn, has shown an increase of 22 percent.

Commute shortened -----------------

For those who ride the full length of the tunnel, average peak-hour commutes have been reduced by about 12 minutes. The trip from Royal Brougham Way to Howell Street, generally the south and north limits of the tunnel, once took 20 minutes by bus on surface streets. It now can be done in about 8 minutes.

Minutes of travel time


Before Now

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20 8