Most readers would agree that Light Rail is going to transform the transit picture everywhere it goes. There’s lots of vague talk about how it will allow a dramatic realignment of bus service. With Central LINK now about a year away, what can we expect in terms of changes to Metro service in the Rainier Valley? With the sounding board a couple of months from kicking off, I’ll speculate on what it might look like. We’ll start with the routes likely to be affected, and then discuss some general service concepts.

The Puzzle Pieces

First of all, there’s no bus route that exactly follows the LINK routing, and is therefore clearly a target for elimination. The nearest candidate is the 194 to the airport, with essentially every stop covered by either the train or Sound Transit Route 574. Although it’s a few minutes faster than the train under ideal traffic conditions, it’s reasonable to assume that LINK’s superior headways, reliability, and smoother ride will annihilate the Seatac-Seattle portion of the 194’s ridership, if Metro continues it at all. It certainly will once the airport extension is complete at the end of 2009.

The next two candidates are the 42 and 48, which follow MLK for almost the entire Rainier Valley segment. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 48 terminate at the Mt. Baker station to improve its legendary unreliability. The 42 deviates little from the rail line, except for the portion along Rainier and Dearborn, so it may very well disappear altogether.

However, that orphans a large number of brand-new bus shelters along MLK, as well as stranding residents living at MLK and Graham St, about a mile from the nearest station. Something is going to have to provide local service.

Routes 7 and 36 largely parallel Central Link, along Rainier and Beacon Avenues, respectively. The 7, in particular, is a short and level walk from MLK all along its route. Beacon Avenue is a steep climb up Beacon Hill away; still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see service curtailed on both lines to shore up some underserved areas of Seattle and shift service to East-West.

Much like the 48, the 9 also runs down Rainier from Capitol Hill, and this is other good candidate for truncation at Mt. Baker station.

The 34 and 39 serve Seward Park and Downtown. It would be logical to terminate these lines at the light rail stations, and use the savings to increase the fairly sparse service on evenings and weekends.

The 106 comes up from Renton, and comes near Rainier Beach station before crossing the line at Othello and continuing on via I-5 to downtown.

Lastly, all the routes that come from South King County certainly have the option of dropping riders at Tukwila, Seatac, or Rainier Beach station to get on the train, but I doubt it will happen. Although it would mean a more reliable trip for most commuters, and create tremendous operating savings for Metro and ST Express, transfers kill ridership. Furthermore, none of those stations are particularly convenient from I-5, so the average travel time to downtown would likely be considerably worse. Sound Transit could do a lot more to improve bus access at Tukwila station, but that’s a subject for another post.

Below are a few general service concepts that make sense in the area. An important input is what Metro hopes to do with respect to bus service hours. Will they take them out of the neighborhoods to serve other areas? Keep it the same? Or double down on growth in the Southeast?

Service Concepts

These shouldn’t be thought of as mutually exclusive, but are listed in decreasing order of likelihood, in my humble opinion:

1) Preserve the Status Quo. Because people tend to protest more strongly when service is taken away than when it is never provided in the first place, inertia may lead to essentially no change beyond minor diversions to serve the stations. There’s some merit in being conservative; if the vast majority of riders choose to board the train at the earliest opportunity, then Metro can quietly truncate the lines when it’s clear that no one is using the last segments.

2) Peak-only to Downtown. In the peak hours, commuters can still have their one-seat ride into downtown. But the rest of the time, service frequency can be greatly improved by delivering riders to the train, utilizing capacity that will probably be underused. Might as well take advantage of all that capital investment!

3) Shift from North/South to East/West. This would mean reducing frequency on buses like the 7, 36, and 42, possibly by truncating them at stations, and boosting the 39 and 106 to provide more service to the stations.

4) Circulators. For a radical change, Metro could junk the whole route system that exists in the Rainier Valley, and focus on a short-haul circulator system that connects the stations with surrounding arterials. For instance, a bus could run along MLK between Othello and Columbia City Stations, and then turn onto Alaska, go South on Rainier, and then back west along Othello St. Another could cover the West Side counterpart on Beacon Ave. Similarly, a bus could shuttle between Mt. Baker and the International District Stations via Rainer Ave. and Jackson St.

I don’t think the fourth option is going to happen, because it means reducing use of the existing trolley lines, which have their own constituency in Metro. Also, change confuses people and is therefore unpopular.

Metro will start publicly mulling over these issues soon. What would you like to see happen?

32 Replies to “Metro & Link in the Rainier Valley”

  1. Great post, Martin! I don’t have much to add, but thanks for starting the conversation.

  2. How about getting the 140 (which provides 15-minute service between Burien, SeaTac, Southcenter and Renton) to connect with the Tukwila LINK station?

    1. I would be extremely surprised if, at least between July ’09 and December ’09, the 140 does not stop at the Tukwila International Blvd station. The same probably applies to route 180. I anticipate the buses stopping at the new Airport Station or ‘kiss and ride’ facility when it opens in December.

  3. This discussion represents a fundamental flaw in the way we have planned and executed Link so far, and in the way we appear to be continuing to plan and execute it. This entire discussion should have happened before we decided where and how to build the Link stations. The full plan should have been in place and on paper so that we could get everyone’s opinion and take into account all the issues. With this sort of planning, we may have moved certain Link stations up or down the line, or put the whole line along a different corridor. Maybe what we did will be fine, but if it is, it will be by accident rather than by design.

    Taking the whole thing a necessary step further, the zoning for the station areas should have been planned concurrently with the planning of Link. This may also have led to route modifications. The most obvious example is Beacon Hill. The neighborhood has adamantly opposed a rezone despite the fact that the majority of the land within 1/4 mile of the station is zoned single family.

    If the city is willing to stick it to the neighborhood and rezone anyway, then that’s one thing (and not necessarily a good thing), but if the city is not willing to do this, then perhaps an alternative route that avoided the extremely expensive Beacon Hill tunnel could have been considered, perhaps with a station going through an area that is already zoned for high density development or a neighborhood that was more willing to support a rezone in exchange for the benefit of a light rail station. The city could easily have gone to the neighborhoods and said:

    “Here’s the deal, anywhere that gets a station gets upzoned. If you want the benefit of the station, you must accept the ‘burden’ of a rezone. Now who wants that deal?”

    This kind of planning could have lead to much better coordination of link, feeder lines and land use, which would in turn substantially increase the return on the public’s massive investment. ROI is critical here. The only way we are going to get more light rail is if the public perceives that it was worth the money. It would be tragic for us to spend all that money on this awesome system, but for it to be underutilized because we didn’t properly integrate the supporting systems into the mix.

    This same absence of coordinated planning is very apparent with the ST2.1 proposal on the ballot this fall. If we keep planning in silos rather than coordinating all the aspects of the system, then we will fail to garner the maximum return on our investment and it will cost us much more to fix it later. Even worse, if the voters catch on to how wasteful we are being by failing to coordinate the supporting systems, they may very well respond by voting down ST2.1 or ST3.

    If we want to see more light rail, then the light rail we build has got to work, and these “little things” like land use and feeder lines are going to make the difference between a wonderful system that everyone loves and wants more of, and a multi-billion dollar boondoggle that his hated with the same passion and fury as the Seattle Monorail Project is today.

    Sorry everybody if that sounded like a bit of a tirade, but this issue is very close to my heart and the focus of my life’s work, so I have some strong feelings on it.

    1. While I understand what you are saying, I think some of this planning (not all of it) has already taken place. What we have here on this blog, is a lot of speculation, mostly because what plans are in the works haven’t yet been made public. And yes, there are a lot of elements not yet planned, but that’s probably because a lot of change has happened over the past 10 years of light rail development. And, with the public committees, they want to make sure they have the most recent input from the ‘people.’

    2. “The only way we are going to get more light rail is if the public perceives that it was worth the money.”

      Well, unfortunately, a large number of people think in very very limited terms that are extremely relative to them. Either they want door-to-door service or want to see packed trains from time to time

    3. I believe much of the routing of light rail was dependent upon available ROW. As for replanning bus routes after light rail comes, isn’t that the much touted great thing about buses…the flexibility?

      As far as fixing anything, I don’t think anything related to rail will need to be fixed. Everything around it will adjust itself to it. Light rail will lessen the impacts of density upon level of service, which will, in turn, allow upzoning around the stations. Buses can and should be rerouted/coordinated with Link.

      Those are my assumptions at least.

  4. Has there been any public discussion of the hours at which Seatac light rail will run? I wind up flying into Seattle after 11PM a fair amount of the time, long after the 194 has retired for the evening. Going to capitol hill, my options are the interminable, jam-packed 174 milk-run, or a $45 cab trip. I’m scared to death that those will remain the choices late at night even after all this infrastructure is finally built.

    1. Supposedly Link will run “20 hrs a day”…4am to midnight would be my guess. Regardless, I understand your point exactly, and I too frequent the late night flights/early morning flights when options are limited (560 stops by 11 am and 560 wont get me to the airport in time for a 6am flight). Maybe ST could supplement with a route running similar if not identical to Link with hourly headways when Link is not in service.

      Have you tried the Greyline Downtown Airporter…not sure if it runs that late however.

      1. Citation needed, and will the transit tunnel’s hours be extended for late night/early morning, will something else happen when the tunnel is closed, or what?

  5. This is just a nit: regarding your suggestion to terminate the routes at the light rail stations, it might not be practical for one route, the #39. That route services the VA hospital, so it might be a substantial inconvenience for disabled vets to make an extra hop or two.

    I really like your suggestion of circulators–many of us in the south end live just far enough away from the stations that a frequently running circulator or two would be really useful. Do you have any idea of how we could get traction with that idea?

    1. The 39 runs right down the busway and onto Columbian Way; it significantly copies Link service already. At the very least it calls for frequency curtailment.

      I would terminate it at the VA hospital and maybe ramp up service frequency on the 32 (and possibly de-express it) to compensate for service cutbacks on the 39 and 36. People taking the 39 from the north could take Link to Columbia City and then hop on the 39 or 32 to the VA hospital; people coming from the south would have no changes.

      I could see the 34 being junked entirely, as it copies the 39 east and south of Rainier and Genessee.

      Me, I wonder what would happen to the 38…

  6. circulators make the most sense, so i suspect we won’t see them happen

    every city i can think of that has a reasonable rail system has realigned much of their bus system to terminate at / around the rail stations.

    circulator routes through the less-dense and farther-flung areas of s. seattle seem like they would work very well. the existing routing seems afflicted with an identity crisis of having to serve both dense and less-dense areas with long-ass routing, tons of lights and stops. circulators would help residents get around the local area more quickly and effectively than the existing through-routes, and they would also provide a quick-hop to link, where the trip downtown would be fast and reliable unlike the current routes where it’s not unreasonable to budget 60-90 minutes for a trip into the city on a bad day. i love the idea.

    what will be really interesting is when link to the u district comes online. i can see the 43 all but gone, and you won’t see me crying. i am really tired of budgeting 45 minutes to go less than three miles from the top of capitol hill (15th area) to the u-district because of the sheer unreliability of the 43.

    1. I don’t see the 43 going away, it will leave a huge gap in between the two stations without access to Downtown unless they take the 48 and make a transfer at the Husky Stadium station or down to catch the 8 or 11.

      At least the trolley wire would have to remain as the 44 depends on it for access to the base.

    2. Yeah, I could see the 43 getting knocked out if there were a station in Montlake or near 23rd and John, but University and North Link has a conceringly small station density in general. Based on the distance between Roosevelt and Brooklyn stations I would expect the northern extention to Northgate and beyond to include a stop at Maple Leaf, which would seemingly obviate the need for the 67, but I live at a hefty walking distance to the Roosevelt OR Brooklyn stations.

      The distance between the Capitol Hill and UW stations is such that the 49 is almost as good a candidate for service curtailment as the 43. It’s a possibility that the 49 gets rerouted along the 43’s downtown trajectory rather than going through Seattle Central Community College, especially once the First Hill Streetcar eventually opens (assuming ST2 passes), since it not only would largely duplicate Link, it also essentially duplicates the 10 and 11 for local service along Pine Street.

      1. know what would be very cool? if there was a portal for the 43/48/25 into the link tunnel on each side of the montlake cut. it’s more than wishful thinking, but man, that would certainly do a lot for reliability on those routes

  7. Metro 194 will not be going away. If you look at the 2007 Sound Transit service plan, it implies that Metro 194 and ST 574 will be combined to provide 15-minute frequencies between Seattle and Federal Way, and 30-minute frequencies between Federal Way and Lakewood. Other possibilities listed are 24-hour service, and new stops at Tukwila LINK, and DuPont Station.

    1. They could shift the Metro route 194’s service hours on the Seattle-Sea-Tac portion to add more service during the period Link is not in service to the airport. The airport then would have reasonably frequent service (every 30 mins) to Downtown 24-hours a day.

  8. With all of these potential bus line closures (or at least reduced frequency), I would imagine they’ll be able to improve quite a few routes not served by Link (pleeeease add 2X’s). Remind me why they’re raising fares again?

  9. Seems to me that KC Metro is scared to change anything unless it is a reaction to voluminous proof of need, so I bet routing will not be touched until 2010 or 2011.

    I really want late airport trains in the tunnel!

    1. Someone jokingly told me recently in a conversation about service changes that “Ron Sims is going to pretend Link isn’t there…”

      Which I believe, given the fact that he started a multi-year route planning process very recently. Why are you going to have public meetings about re-routes THIS YEAR when it opens NEXT YEAR? Why not, uh, a couple of years ago?

  10. A couple of things. It’s obvious many of you haven’t spent much time around people who live along MLK. To many of these people, 2 or 3 blocks seems like 2 to 3 miles. Sure, some may be disabled, but many are simply lazy. They will still want to take the bus if the light rail station is more than 2 blocks away from their bus stop.

    Another group of transit riders will still prefer taking the 194 to and from the airport, especially at night, to avoid bumping into youths from the high crime Rainier Valley that travel in packs that will soon be frequenting the light rail trains and lurking around stations.

    That said, I believe their is already Machiavellian plans in place for cutting back bus service for no other reason than to ensure that light rail is a “success.” Reduce the bus service and people won’t have a choice. They’ll have to ride the trains, which means guaranteed light rail ridership. Pretty ingenious, huh?

  11. Sam,

    I live along MLK, so I think I know a little bit about this subject.

    The whole objective of this post is to speculate about how to serve people who are more than a few blocks from a station, so I’m not sure where you’re going with your contemptuous and possibly racist remark about how lazy Southeast Seattle residents are. I feel sad for you, spending your life in fear of young people.

    In the last bullet, are you arguing that bus service shouldn’t change when the train starts running?

    1. Sam, I agree that your comments are offensive. Racist undertones or not, it’s not appropriate to negatively stereotype groups of people based on what neighborhood they live in.

      As for your Machiavellian plans, that’s absurd. The “they” is two different groups: Sound Transit and Metro King County Transit. There is no reason for Metro to make Link “look” like a success. If there’s a rail corridor and a bus corridor that are largely identical, people are going to choose rail because it’s more reliable, comfortable, and frequent than a bus. So Metro is hopefully going to use those service hours to better serve communities a) that don’t have rail, b) are “close” to a rail station but not walking-distance close.

  12. Martin Duke, if you want to bring up racism, I suggest you look in the mirror. I never once mentioned race. You brought it up. You need to do some soul-searching on this topic.

    John Jensen, I am simply bringing up some people’s concerns. From personal experience, I know there are many people who will either be unable, or unwilling, to walk more than two blocks. I also know that there are people who will fear taking a train alone at night that detours through a high crime neighborhood. Remember, the driver will be behind a closed door, and most trains will not have Sound Transit employees or guards on them.

    1. I don’t believe people near MLK are any less willing to walk to a bus or light rail stop than someone in Capitol Hill or Bellevue or Pioneer Square.

      I think you need to be more sensitive when calling neighborhoods occupied with “lazy” people and “high-crime” areas with “lurking” youth. And asking if we’ve “seen the people” who live near MLK seems to imply that just by looking at them we can see how willing they are to walk to a transit stop. This isn’t political correctness on high alert: your comments are just absurd. South Seattle has the highest transit ridership in all of the region, and anyone who takes the bus now generally has to walk a few blocks on either end of the commute. So I’m just not seeing proof that there are massive groups of people who live in South Seattle and are unwilling to walk to trains.

      In terms of crime — you’re just assuming that there will be a problem because the line runs through the wrong neighborhood. If there’s crime on or near the line, the solution isn’t for an unrelated agency to supply more bus hours — the solution is to get transit police to create a safe means of transportation. I completely agree that safety is a valid concern, but I don’t agree that buses have anything near the reputation for safety that would be acceptable to many Seattlites. (It would be good for Metro to contract more police for that reason.)

      By the way, what is with this scary scenario? The analogy to the scary, lonely late-night train to Seatac is a bus that stops running at 10pm (194).

      1. Or worse, ride the 174 after 10 pm. It takes nearly twice as long as the 194 and runs til 3 am. If you get off, you’re stranded for an hour til the next one comes.

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