Greyhound may test Seattle's commitment to mass transportation

The bus line is losing its home on the north edge of downtown. Is a move to Pioneer Square's King Street Station the best choice, and perhaps the only way to keep the intercity service in Seattle?

Crosscut archive image.

Artist J. Craig Thorpe's conception of a multimodal complex at King Street Station, with the bus terminal above the railroad tracks beyond the station house. (The drawing was done several years ago, before Qwest Field was renamed CenturyLink.)

The bus line is losing its home on the north edge of downtown. Is a move to Pioneer Square's King Street Station the best choice, and perhaps the only way to keep the intercity service in Seattle?

Seattle's professed love for coordinated public transportation is facing a suitor that may test the city's affection. Greyhound Lines, whose local terminal has occupied a building on Stewart Street since 1928, got its eviction notice in late September. The property is slated for redevelopment, meaning that the granddaddy of intercity bus service has to find a new Seattle home by April 2013.

Greyhound's first choice, says district manager Mike Timlin, “would be to go in with King Street Station, with other providers, to turn King Street into a sort of intermodal hub."

But, in Timlin's view, "There doesn't appear to be enough political will to make that happen. The Alaska Viaduct is taking a lot of attention.”

If that proves to be the case, Greyhound may have missed its golden opportunity. Writing about the King Street passenger rail facility in 2006, Seattle Times columnist Kate Riley wrote in a column, ”Mayor Greg Nickels and council Transportation Committee Chairwoman Jan Drago are enthusiastic not only because of the depot's history, but also for its expanding role as the multimodal King Street Transportation Center.” Nickels and Drago have, of course, moved on, and dreams of multimodalism — intermodalism, as some call it — at King Street appear to have been filed away.

The station is undergoing a complete rehabilitation, but the Amtrak Thruway and few other intercity buses that call at the station wedge their way into a curbside location — it doesn't deserve the term "facility" — just outside the depot. Greyhound's dilemma thus rekindles a development discussion whose complexity matches that of the traffic flows and multiuse pressures on the Pioneer Square neighborhood adjoining the station.

Ronald Sheck, who managed the involvement of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) in the station's rehabilitation until his retirement in 2008, noted in an e-mail interview that ideas for a multimodal terminal in the vicinity suffered from a lack of commitment among key players — Amtrak, Greyhound, and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), which owns the tracks that pass the station.

The eviction notice has now forced Greyhound to change its tune.

Meanwhile, after six years of negotiation, King County sold the North Lot Development (NLD), 3.85 acres of CenturyLink Field's north parking lot between the stadium and the station, in September. The remaining undeveloped land between the office-retail-residential development and the station appears insufficient for the comfortable handling of a full-size coach, say nothing of a bus terminal.

Timlin rejected the possibility of curbside operation such as upstart intercity carriers in the Northeast have been using. The city had offered “the whole street” in one International District location, he reported, but “we couldn't find a ticket and waiting area." Greyhound can't operate without a building, he added.

“We're keeping all options open," Timlin said. "We may have to leave the City of Seattle if we can't find anything reasonably priced within the city limits.”

Following up on a WSDOT letter to the Seattle Department of Transportation, Greyhound CEO David Leach sent a letter to Mayor Mike McGinn Nov. 30, seeking a “face-to-face meeting” on the situation. “Our primary interest,” Leach wrote, “has been to co-locate into an existing or developing intermodal passenger transportation facility with other surface transportation modes, and the King Street Station has been our top priority."

“I cannot overstate the urgency of this situation,” Leach wrote.

A spokesman said McGinn would be willing to meet if it appears useful, and said the mayor supports people having a variety of options for transportation. But Greyhound had not received a reply at the end of last week.

One idea discussed during the past decade was a terminal that would sit over the railroad tracks, between Fourth Avenue and the north lot area. BNSF, however, expressed security and terrorism concerns, Sheck stated.

The discussion went far enough to generate artist's conceptions of how the facility might look (illustration), but seemed to end with more of a whimper than a bang. A city webpage on the project describes a “King Street Station Multimodal Hub” as having been designated in the 2003 Center City Access Study as a "key element" of the Center City transportation system, and provides a project agenda — but that was for 2006.

Sheck said that the over-the-tracks terminal would offer ease of access and an abundance of space for buses, and "might be the ultimate logical solution" if BNSF could buy into it.

A key figure in North Lot's development sees value in the idea, too. “All it takes is a lid being constructed that we have designed and was ready to go back in 2005,” wrote Kevin Daniels, president of NLD partner Daniels Real Estate, in an e-mail interview. He estimated the structure's cost at $10 million. “The thought at the time was to leave an option to build additional office space above it as a development option to help fund the cost. We also talked to Sen. [Patty] Murray at that time and received some support."

"Cramming more activity onto a dead end King Street makes no sense," Daniels said. “I also believe the cost of this alternative is less than buying the required land and development rights needed to address adding interstate bus activity ... in the North Lot.”

Daniels' last statement alludes to the possibility that the north lot parking area remaining between his development and the stadium may present. The Washington State Public Stadium Authority (PSA) owns that lot, and the land under CenturyLink Field, and has leased both until 2029 to Paul Allen's First and Goal, the Seahawks' parent company. The terms of the King County-NLD sale included creation of a 90-foot-wide easement, following the alignment of Second Avenue between the development's two blocks, to allow pedestrians, cars, and charter buses to reach the stadium for events. According to PSA project manager Steve Woo, no arrangements have been finalized as to where the charters will stop to load or unload passengers in the parking area.

That creates a natural question whether the parking arrangements would allow combined access for both the occasional event charters and scheduled intercity buses serving Seattle — all within a few hundred feet of the train station. The need for bus terminal facilities complicates the idea, but the configuration seems to offer, at the least, a simple, place-holder option while a grander solution takes shape. If PSA or King County finds merit in the option, Daniels stated, “they can come discuss what they might need.”

First and Goal did not respond to several requests for comment.

There could be other solutions around King Street Station. Sheck raised the possibility of purchasing and converting the Seattle Lighting building, across Jackson Street to the north of the station, as an option that would be similar to Portland, where the train and intercity bus stations stand almost next to each other.

Indeed, multimodal terminals shared by Amtrak, intercity bus providers, and local transit constitute an increasingly common feature of urban life in cities from Vancouver, B.C., to Meridian, Miss. The political question thus reads: Does Seattle intend to seize the opportunity?

In September, McGinn lauded the King County-NLD deal as “good news.” The release touted expectations that “the project will be the largest transit-oriented development on the West Coast.” Now, with Greyhound on the hunt for a new site, one wonders just how far the mayor's vision for transit-oriented development extends.

In a phone interview late last week, mayoral spokesman Aaron Pickus said a senior member of the mayor's staff would be meeting with the Seattle Department of Transportation and WSDOT and evaluating the situation.

Pickus did not have a date for the meeting. Greyhound executives might take part, he said, adding that “our office [also] will be working with our Office of Economic Development, which has expertise in siting and working with neighborhoods as to where things go. We're very much in a fact-finding stage. The mayor wants to help.”

If a meeting with Leach “appears beneficial, I'm sure he'll be very open to it,” Pickus added, referring to McGinn. “The mayor's position on transportation is that people need a wide array of choices for getting around,” he said, including intercity buses.

The decision makers can expect transportation advocates to join the discussion. Like Sheck, Rob Johnson, executive director of the Seattle-based Transportation Choices Coalition, referenced the multimodal facilities that welcome travelers to Portland, Seattle's rival in the battle for green bragging rights.

“We look at places like Portland ... as great examples of what we could do with King Street Station now that the rehabilitation is almost complete there and we're seeing the vibrancy of the north lot development going in," Johnson said. "I think that there's a lot of opportunities to create a great public space there ... in a way that's very exciting.”


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