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NPR Latest Updates: Day 2 of the RNC

Seattle Squeeze: Get ready for changes to downtown transit tunnel

A northbound train pulls into Westlake Station in downtown Seattle.
Simone Alicea
A northbound train pulls into Westlake Station in downtown Seattle.

Even though Seattle commuters are still getting used to the viaduct replacement tunnel, transportation officials are preparing for the next step in the "Seattle Squeeze." Starting Saturday, all buses that currently use the downtown transit tunnel will move onto the surface streets.

Only light rail trains will use the tunnel. The permanent shift is in preparation for future light rail expansion to Bellevue, West Seattle and Ballard. 

While train riders may be looking forward to less crowded stops down below, many bus riders whose routes travel through downtown will have to adjust on the surface.

Seven routes will move from the tunnel onto surface streets: King County Metro routes 41, 74, 255, 101, 102, 150; and Sound Transit route 550. 

In addition, eight other King County Metro routes will be shifted to accommodate the extra bus traffic: 76, 77, 252, 257, 301, 311, 308, 316.

Instead of pushing all the buses to Third Avenue, new bus lanes have been created on Fifth and Sixth avenues. Overall, the 15 affected routes would be spread along Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth avenues.

To further prepare for the influx, riders will be able to board buses on any door on Third Avenue.

Transit officials are asking bus riders to check ahead to see if their routes are changing or if their stops might be getting more crowded. The change will also affect people who don't ride buses to some extent.

"There are just going to be straight-up more buses on the street," said Heather Marx, the director of downtown mobility for the Seattle Department of Transportation.

Marx said the influx of buses could be a surprise to anyone moving around downtown, adding that travelers should not only, "make physical space for the buses, but also mental space."

"Drivers and pedestrians and cyclists all need to be aware that these are big giant vehicles," Marx said. 



The transit tunnel changes are the latest step in what's known as the "Seattle Squeeze" or the "period of maximum constraint." 

Starting around the time of the viaduct closure, the squeeze is a five-year period when city planners and transportation officials say traffic will get even tighter around Seattle as new transit and construction projects get underway.

Commuters may already be tired of hearing "pack your patience," but Marx said it's still good advice as Seattle continues to deal with the consequences of growth.

"What hasn't kept pace with that change is our transportation system," she said. "What we're doing over these next five years is building the transportation system for the city that we've already become."

Commuters also can expect to hear other continued messages: get out of your car, try transit, consider other modes of transportation.

Data from the city show travelers are hearing those messages for the most part. Between 2010 and 2017, fewer people were commuting alone in their cars and more people were taking transit.

But big events such as the viaduct closure or the transit tunnel shift can help bring urgency to those messages, said transportation consultant Madeline Feig.

"We were really benefitting from the media attention from the viaduct closure," Feig said. "So it's definitely much easier when we have something that's in our sight."

Feig works for Commute Seattle, a nonprofit led by SDOT, transit agencies and the Downtown Seattle Association that helps businesses encourage alternative transportation options for their employees.

During the viaduct closure, for example, many employers were encouraged to create or promote work-from-home and flex-scheduling options in addition to carpool and transit-friendly policies.

"We haven't created anything new here," Feig said. "These are things that employers should be pushing their folks to do all the time, not just for a viaduct closure or a bus tunnel."

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.