While there is a lot of lost service in the King County Metro network due to COVID-19 and its economic impacts, Metro has nevertheless managed to make lemonade out of lemons by assembling an increasingly robust network of buses connecting to Link Light Rail stations at frequencies that match Link’s temporary off-peak frequency of every 15 minutes. Link’s frequency is planned to be every 15 minutes during off-peak hours, until late evening, likely through 2021. Sound Transit is preparing for a long pandemic. The recent spike in new cases and deaths backs up their pessimism.
The following routes that serve Link stations outside of, or just on the periphery of, downtown have 15-minute off-peak weekday headway. (Link now runs every 8 minutes during the peak period on weekdays.) Unless otherwise noted, they also have 15-minute headway during the day on weekends.
On October 8th System Expansion Committee received briefings on various capital projects. The centerpiece was a detailed review of East Link. The system is 85% complete, within the budget set in 2015, and on schedule for opening in July 2023. But there’s also some bad news.
Major civil engineering should be done in early 2021, and systems work by early 2022. Most of 2022 will be “pre-revenue” testing, and from September 2022 is 9 months of “float”. But some things are not going well.
For most of us, voting could not be easier. Every registered voter with their address of record up-to-date gets a ballot in the mail. Return postage is pre-paid. There are also plenty of ballot drop boxes open. Ones close to light rail stations include the Beacon Hill Library, Uwajimaya, the King County Administration Building, and the northeast corner of the Edison Building at Seattle Central College,
The King County Elections Department recommends that you mail your ballot by Friday, October 30, in order to make sure it gets postmarked by election day, the following Tuesday. After that, it is recommended that you use one of the many drop boxes that are available 24/7 now through 8 pm on November 3.
UPDATE: In-person voting registration is available through Election Day at the accessible voting sites, but the County urges everyone to use the voting centers only if they have to. Wearing a face covering over the nose and mouth will be required.
Sound Transit recently started its virtual open house for the NE 130th St infill station, where you can see the latest designs. As part of this open house, there is a survey where you can provide feedback on the proposed designs. In addition to the blue and green station-wide color scheme options, you can weigh in on the available plaza-level seating and bollard options. In addition to the station design, Sound Transit has provided an update the status of the project.
Link Light Rail service will be partially disrupted this weekend, per an annoucement from Sound Transit:
Link light rail service will temporarily stop running between the UW and SODO stations Saturday, October 17, and Sunday, October 18 to allow for system upgrades.
During the service interruption, free bus service will be available between UW station and SODO station. Light rail riders will need to switch between trains and buses at SODO station stations [sic] to complete their journeys. Sound Transit will provide shuttle buses every ten minutes between the affected stations, and Sound Transit personnel will be available to help passengers with transfers. Trains will run every 15 minutes on the weekend. Light rail trains will return to their regular schedule Monday morning.
Other alternatives to get to or between the northern station areas include:
Route 7 between Mt Baker Station and downtown.
Route 36 between Beacon Hill Station and downtown.
Route 48 between Mt Baker Station and UW.
Route 10, 11, or 49 between Westlake and Capitol Hill.
Route 49 between Capitol Hill and the U-District.
Route 60 between Beacon Hill Station and Capitol Hill.
Route 70 between downtown and the U-District.
Route 101, 150, or ST Express 594 between SODO Station, Stadium Station, and downtown.
Any work Sound Transit has to do on Link is certainly best to do on weekends during the pandemic, while there are the fewest riders to be impacted.
King County Metro is embarking on a process to phase out on-board cash payments.
Details are so far limited, pending discusssions with stakeholders. A briefing to the King County Council Budget and Fiscal Management Committee noted the discontinuation of on-board cash fares would happen in concert with the launch of the subsidized annual pass program and the planned launch of Next Generation ORCA by early 2023. Metro will engage with community stakeholders later this year and early next year to develop a plan.
The subsidized annual pass program offers free fares on all Metro services but Vanpool, and is available to recipients of several means-tested programs. The full launch of that program was announced yesterday. (Sound Transit is running a similar program on a pilot basis). It’s favorable to reducing cash use because lower income riders have historically preferred not to prepay for ORCA media.
Next Generation ORCA allows smart-phone payment and private bankcard payment, so that paying fares becomes easier for infrequent riders or those without a current balance on their ORCA accounts. The new ORCA cards will be available at a far greater number of retail locations.
The immediate practical importance is that various transit and transportation agencies will not have to refund the money they have been collecting since I-976 passed, easing pressure on budgets statewide.
All justices but Barbara Madsen, who found only one reason to reject it instead of two, signed the ruling. Story here ($).
Seattle loves its bus service. As pandemic measures temporarily reduce demand, new challenges like the West Seattle Bridge closure arise. It would be irresponsible to reject a measure that doesn’t even fully replace the tax that it succeeds.
In 2014, Seattle approved a $60 vehicle license fee and 0.1% sales tax to fund increases in bus service that greatly increased the number of Seattle residents within walking distance of bus routes that run every 10 minutes all day. That tax expires on December 31st, and Metro has already cut some service in anticipation of losing that revenue.
Booming tax revenues, and a lack of bus capacity at Metro, led Seattle to find other worthy transit-related goals. Notably, Mayor Durkan introduced the “ORCA Opportunity” program, providing free passes to Seattle Public School students and therefore nearly eliminating youth fares in the City of Seattle.
Correction: In Metro’s Phase 3 proposal, route 64 goes to South Lake Union. (New route 361 from Bothell will also go to South Lake Union via Northgate Station.) Also, route 309 is renumbered as 322 to reflect the detour to Roosevelt Station.
One of the most notable features of King County Metro’s North King County bus route restructure proposed for September 2021, when Northgate Link is scheduled to open for service, is the continued use of north-end and Shoreline express bus service for First Hill. The rest of the express bus service from the north end and Shoreline to the Central Business District will go away.
Metro plans to have four First Hill express routes in operation after Northgate Link opens, three of them competing with Link Light Rail:
Route 193 serves Federal Way Park & Ride (S 320th St), Federal Way Transit Center, Star Lake Freeway Station, Kent – Des Moines Freeway Station, and Tukwila Park & Ride before expressing to First Hill.
New route 302 would replace some 301 and 304 service, but going to First Hill, with a stop at Northgate Station.
Route 303 serves Shoreline Park & Ride, Aurora Village, Northgate Transit Center, and then expresses to First Hill. Routes 302 and 303 are planned to provide alternating service between Northgate Station and First Hill.
New Route 322 would essentially be a renumbering of route 309 (Bothell to First Hill), but with a detour to Roosevelt Station before jumping on I-5 to get to First Hill.
The First Hill expresses only operate during peak hours, and only in the peak direction. Given the 24/7 nature of all the medical buildings, this specialty service is mostly irrelevant to a large chunk of First Hill employees, unless they are the lucky ones working the latte shift.
Second quarter ridership data from Sound Transit shows, as expected, a collapse in ridership after COVID. There was a meaningful recovery in June as the lockdown eased, but ridership more recently seems to have stabilized at just under one-fourth of normal levels.
Pre-pandemic system ridership was about 4 million riders per month. At the bottom, in April, Link and ST Express ridership were at 18% of normal. There was some slight recovery in May, and more in June.
Ridership on ST Express and on Link has hovered around 22% of normal since June. (‘Normal’ here being the 2019 average). The commuter-heavy Sounder trains are carrying just 10% of their regular passenger loads. Tacoma Link is a relative bright spot, with 35% of normal ridership in August because it’s ridership is less commute-oriented. Overall system ridership remains just short of 900,000 monthly.
Escalators at UW station, after failing spectacularly on several occasions in 2018, are now working well. After a series of changes to improve maintenance, downtime has been greatly reduced and Sound Transit is now comfortable postponing a full replacement of the escalators. The good news at UW allows Sound Transit to turn its attention to the planned takeover of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel in 2021. There, the agency is anticipating an unexpectedly steep bill to replace nearly all of the elevators and escalators.
The opening of the back stairs at UW station in March 2019 relieved loads at peak times. There is a new contractor for maintenance, with technicians on-site weekdays. A pre-positioned inventory of spare parts is available to to quickly bring escalators back on line when an outage occurs. This year, work was completed on a public passage between the sub-mezzanines.
While Sound Transit acknowledges the upgrades have not been stress-tested with higher ridership, escalator availability at UW this year has been 98.5% and elevators at 99.5%. Availability has remained high even as Sound Transit took advantage of low traffic to accelerate repairs requiring planned outages.
The 7 was essential before the outbreak, too. Riders boarded the route 11,000 times a day, making it one of Metro’s five busiest bus lines. But with crowded and late buses, Metro labeled the route as in need of improvements and planned to convert it to a RapidRide line with special stops and signals by 2024.
Now, those plans are on hold.
As part of its latest budget proposal, Metro intends to pause work on the RapidRide R line to Rainier Valley and several other projects in the wake of financial losses from the pandemic.
In a cruel twist of fate, given how important Rainier Valley transit continues to be during the pandemic, the Metro/SDOT outreach survey went out just as the lockdowns went into effect. In addition to branded buses and shelters, the RapidRide R would have consolidated several stops and extended trolley wire all the to Rainier Beach Station.
While the RapidRide branding is currently off the table (though federal funding may still be possible?), SDOT is still working on transit and pedestrian upgrades to Rainier Avenue. Many were completed this year and several more are due in 2021-22, though they may be pared back, as the Mayor’s recent budget states that “Levy reductions in 2022 will reduce the amount of elements in scope of work for Route 7 improvements.”
The proposed budget for King County Metro released last month indicates an agency preparing for a prolonged and deep decline in ridership. Fare revenue projections have been lowered by at least one third through at least the middle of the decade. While the budget authorizes the restoration of most suspended service if ridership does return, capital investments are ramped sharply downwards and will constrain Metro’s capacity to serve more customers.
In a comparison of the current budget proposal with the adopted budget of two years ago, the decline in expected fare revenue is striking. The forecast for the 2021-22 biennium is reduced by half. Even in the 2023-24 biennium, fare revenue is anticipated to be 34% less than the earlier projection. It grows just 7% in the biennium after that. Metro’s view appears to be that, after an initial rebound as pandemic fears ease, bus ridership is on a permanently much lower path.*
The shortfalls in fare revenue over the next six years are larger than the loss of tax revenues. County sales tax revenues are expected to be off 10% in the 2021-22 biennium, and off 7% in 2023-24, relative to the projections of two years ago. That seems manageable, but because sales taxes make up more than half of Metro’s revenues, the dollar impact is nevertheless large; a $142 million shortfall in the next biennium, and $102 million in the biennium after that.
Two weeks ago I criticized Sound Transit’s 2021 plans for another full year of substandard Link service. Now that I’m corresponding with someone who actually still works at Sound Transit, I was able to get a reply.
I had three concerns: (1) that a high-capacity trunk line should have high frequency even if ridership is low, (2) restoring most service to the peak is perverse if the problem is lower peak ridership, and (3) fears that ST would not be flexible enough to ramp up service as people returned to work in 2021.
The first is essentially unanswerable: it’s not a data-driven argument, but ST can simply choose to meet previous expectations of its customers, and the assumptions that underpin the bus network, or not. But the data they provided does provide reassurance on the other fronts.