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Tunnel outcasts want in
Q: When the downtown Seattle bus tunnel reopens next Monday, some of the bus routes that surfaced during the tunnel's two-year closure ...
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Q: When the downtown Seattle bus tunnel reopens next Monday, some of the bus routes that surfaced during the tunnel's two-year closure (to be retrofitted for light rail) will not go back underground.
Seattle Times staffer Ranny Green says he and a number of Route 177 commuters are trying to figure out why their bus, which runs between downtown Seattle and Federal Way's South 320th Street Park-and-Ride, is not slated to go back into the tunnel.
"We had used it before, and this bus runs virtually full on most runs," Green said.
"I cannot think of one good reason why we should still be stuck on Second Avenue each night while many of the other routes miss all the downtown street mess and get out of town more quickly."
Route 177 runs at peak hours morning and evening, so riders can't understand why it is not at the top of the list to return to the tunnel.
"All of the riders on the 177s I ride coming in and going back are furious about this Metro decision," Green said.
A: Route 177 riders are not the only ones likely to be disappointed. At least five other routes — 190, 196, 266, 306 and 312 — will not return to the tunnel, either. They will continue operating on the same surface streets through downtown Seattle as they do now.
Metro Transit spokeswoman Linda Thielke says one reason the 177, 190, 196 and 266 weren't selected to return to the tunnel is that they don't always need the large 60-foot hybrid articulated coaches to accommodate their ridership. Those are the only types of buses that can be used in the tunnel, because they can switch from diesel to electricity.
Also, Thielke says, Metro is trying to group routes with common destinations together so that passengers have options at the same stops. The 177, 190 and 196 serve the Federal Way area, so they are grouped them together.
The 306 and 312 were left on the surface because they operate in conjunction with Sound Transit's Route 522, and Metro says putting the three together offers a much higher level of service for riders.
"We know 177 riders are upset, but not every trip throughout the day operates with the volume of riders that fills a hybrid bus," Thielke said.
Three routes that were not in the tunnel before — the 74 express, the 174 and the morning 217 runs — will be new to the tunnel. So, for now, there'll be 18 routes using the tunnel.
Q: Former Seattle resident Jerry Hawley, who now makes his home on sunny Southern California's Coronado Island, has come up with what he thinks is a good idea for solving a bit of freeway folly. Since he still drives back and forth frequently and keeps up with the news from here, he reasoned he'd share his idea.
On freeways in the Northwest and throughout the country, most exits are off to the right. Right? Hawley points out that signs posted to alert drivers to upcoming exits can lead some to start jockeying through traffic to get over to the far-right lane before the exit.
But what about those times the exit turns out to be on the left side of the freeway? The Seneca Street and Mercer Street exits from northbound Interstate 5 in downtown Seattle come to mind.
"Suddenly you have to choose," Hawley says. "Skip the exit altogether or, more likely, urgently cut back through lanes of fast-moving cars to get to the other side."
Too often, he's found there's not enough time to safely make it to the other side. And an out-of-towner or a driver unfamiliar with the area can get lost taking the next exit, then trying to figure out how to backtrack.
"This has happened to me many times in many different cities across the country, from Los Angeles to Houston to Washington, D.C.," he said.
So here's his suggestion: Make it standard practice for exit signs on major freeways and highways to bear white lettering if the exit is on the right, and yellow lettering if the exit is on the left.
"The cost would seem to be well worthwhile," he figures. Good idea?
A: Interesting idea, says Rick Mowlds, a state Department of Transportation traffic-operations engineer, and it's a problem state and federal highway folks also have pondered.
"We recognize that drivers might not expect left-hand exits and might have difficulty safely changing lanes to access the exits," Mowlds said. "Ideally, we try to replace left-hand exits with right-hand exits [in this state] when we can," he said. Such was the case last summer with the Broadway exit off northbound I-5 in Everett.
"Unfortunately, at many locations we are unable to eliminate existing left-hand exits because of challenging geography and high costs," Mowlds said.
All states are now mandated by the Federal Highway Administration to include the word "left" on all signs approaching left-hand exits. Mowlds says compliance should be complete across this state sometime next year.
Q: Would a second left-turn lane for southbound traffic at Dexter Avenue North and Mercer Street, just east of Aurora Avenue North near Seattle Center, improve traffic flow? Eric Fernstrom of Renton thinks it might and thinks it should be a simple fix.
"I have seen traffic backed up, up to a half-mile or more," he said, and that creates traffic problems at both the Valley Street and Aloha Street intersections to the north.
Fernstrom's idea is to make the Dexter and Mercer intersection similar in traffic pattern to Sixth Avenue South and South Spokane Street, where an inside lane feeds traffic onto Interstate 5 northbound and the adjacent lane is for traffic onto I-5 southbound or through traffic on Sixth.
A: Maybe there's a simpler fix, says Wayne Wentz, the Seattle Transportation Department's traffic-management director.
A lane shared by left-turn and through traffic would require a change in the traffic signal, he said, and that would likely reduce the time allowed for each movement, "which would lead to more congestion."
But Wentz says here's an improvement that might work: The southbound left-turn pocket could be extended 30 to 40 feet.
That, he says, would help get left-turning traffic out of the way of southbound through traffic and help move left-turners through the intersection quickly. He says that change should be made within the next three weeks or so.
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