As Pierce Transit has slogged their way through successive rounds of service cuts, service frequencies have fallen far below those necessary to sustain the reasonably gridded, pulse-and-transfer based system they previously enjoyed prior to 2010. With mid-day frequencies at hourly on most routes and span of service ending in the early evening, the agency is rightly testing more ad hoc, targeted solutions, including seasonal routes such as the Gig Harbor Trolley, an expanded vanpool fleet, community circulators in East Pierce County, and now a new custom express route. This makes a certain amount of sense, as PT’s overcapitalized fleet affords them the ability to offer service to targeted constituencies willing to support it.

PTThe institution of the new express Route 485 — to be the only fixed-route service on SR 512 since the demise of Sound Transit 585 — is being driven by the Western Institutional Review Board moving its office from West Olympia to the Benaroya Business Park near South Hill Mall in Puyallup. More of a professionally-driven, oversized vanpool than a fixed-route bus service, Route 485 will run from Olympia TC to South Hill with stops at Martin Way, Hawks Prairie, and then nonstop to the Benaroya Business Park. The once-a-day, 30-mile trip will take roughly an hour and have a custom fare of $3 each way. Surveys of the company’s employees indicate a likely daily ridership of 74, putting farebox recovery at 60%, nearly 4 times PT’s 16% farebox recovery elsewhere.

Somewhat strangely, the deadhead to Olympia will run in service as a separate Route 475. Beginning in University Place at 4:30am, the trip will provide a timed connection to the first Sounder train at South Tacoma, stop at Lakewood Station a full hour before the first Intercity Transit 609, then run nonstop to Olympia. In the afternoon, it will provide a 6th frequency during the 4:00pm hour between Olympia and Lakewood, meet the second Sounder train at South Tacoma, and terminate in University Place. The resistance to deadheading the route is admirable but puzzling considering the massive deadheading required for PT-operated Sound Transit routes, which in many cases exceed 100 deadhead miles per day for each round trip.

To say the least, in a general sense it’s hard to be excited by a once-a-day trip before sunrise to an exurban office park, but for Pierce County this idea has many promising applications. Employment centers that have multiple successful vanpools (particularly the 63,000+ employees at Joint Base Lewis McChord, where more than 60 vanpools operate) could, with sufficient local partnership, be scaled up to custom express service.

29 Replies to “Pierce Transit Testing Custom Express Routes”

  1. Gee, I guess PT has no shame, willing to write off many local customers, so they can pander to an Olympia company to ease the cost of relocating to cheaper digs. PT only has to pay for 40% of the “Custom Bus (aka-freebie to our out of district cronies express)”, which sounds like a great deal for someone.
    Didn’t Boeing pay 100% of the Metro Custom bus services to Everett?
    And yes, the Puget Sound is bending over backwards to increase the average distance traveled to work.
    What’s next?

    1. I’m not sure I can agree with this perspective. Assuming many of these rides would be taking place with vanpools otherwise, at least this approach opens up the subsidized ride to any member of the public who wants to go that way. It seems like an improvement over vanpools in at least that one respect.

  2. Considering this still has an estimated 40% subsidy, how does the cost of this pencil out versus vanpools? I realize there’s a nonzero public benefit of having scheduled bus service instead, but especially given Pierce Transit’s budget straits, I think it’s worth considering. Perhaps Western IRB could help make up the gap?

    1. Pierce Transit vanpools have a farebox recovery rate of 57%. Rather low considering King County Metro’s farebox recovery rate of vanpool operation.

  3. According to the News Tribune article, the fare for route 475 is $3, but the fare for route 485 is $4.50.

    1. …with nearly identical run times each way for both routes. Where’s the social justice Marshall when you need him?

      1. Since Western IRB is subsidizing the fares, employees won’t have to pay that much. And since many of them are doctors, lawyers and “office professionals”, they can probably afford it.

        For the other route, it’s a way of squeezing revenue out of what would be a deadhead.

  4. Doesn’t the 578 sometimes deadhead to Tacoma after arriving in Puyallup? I remember last year, those trips on the schedule went to Tacoma, and even prior, this was what was intended to replace route 582 (I think I got the number right).

    From what I gather, those trips still DH to Tacoma, but now run as “out of service” instead of revenue service for no apparent reason.

    1. This drives me crazy. What’s the motivation here? Poorly performing runs are worse PR than deadheads, maybe?

    1. Six of one, half-dozen of the other. You can have deadheads or you can have not very useful, very poorly performing revenue service.

      Either way, it shows there is an inefficient service pattern.

      1. They could esrablish shadow/flex schedules and reduced stops for the deadheads. 566 is a prime example as I experienced. Its reliability was already terrible. Might as well carry some additonal riders for terribly performing routes and get some revenue out of it. But I do get what you’re saying. It just is a bad setup. PT should not be operating the 566. CT operations also are fairly unnerving to me.

  5. Can anybody give me a reason why there’s any such thing as a deadhead anymore? I was embarrassed to drive empty buses anywhere from Downtown Seattle to Bellevue thirty years ago.

    Let alone a hundred miles. Write the damn run into the schedule and call it an express! If you carry three passengers, how can you lose money?

    If nothing else, chalk it up to the marketing budget. Because empty buses look bad to the millionth power.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Deadheads are better than revenue runs where there could be a security problem with letting passengers aboard (e.g., returns to base late at night) or where there is nowhere safe to let off the passengers (e.g., deadheads returning to North Base).

      Also, where deadheads are between revenue trips, it can be faster to deadhead than to pick up passengers. That’s why one small piece of the last round of Metro cuts was to turn a few reverse-peak 212 and 301 trips back into deadheads — doing so allowed Metro to take one bus off each route without losing any peak-direction trips.

      1. Deadheads returning to North Base along I-5 could easily drop passengers off at the 45th and 145th St. freeway stations. Not great, but a whole lot better than nothing.

        As to deadheads between revenue trips, the way I like to think of it is that a marginal cost of 5 minutes to let passengers on or off and/or take an extra exit, wait at an extra stoplight to serve a bus stop, may not seem like much, but getting back to the other end 5 minutes later can have implications on peak-of-the-peak frequency or reliability, either of which can lead to overcrowding on the peak direction runs.

      2. The issue with deadheads between trips isn’t the time to let passengers off or take an extra exit. It’s the time to stay consistent with other buses running the same route, which in practice means an extra entire slog through downtown or the U-District. It’s well proven that it causes more problems than it solves to have deadhead trips that are numbered like other trips but don’t make the same stops.

        Similarly, deadheads that pick up in completely odd places (such as a North Base morning deadhead picking up southbound along 2nd Ave) will just confuse passengers.

      3. Even if reverse-direction runs go straight to the far terminus at the opposite side of downtown, without slogging and extra time through downtown, doesn’t mean that the option to ride it can’t be there. In fact, the ability to ride such buses would save huge amounts of time slogging through downtown for people that live north of downtown and work south of downtown, or vice-versa.

        If giving the reverse run the same route number as the regular run is too confusing, make up a different route number, or put some letter at the end to denote the difference.

    2. I have been told in the past by a few PT drivers that the agency’s policy is to allow revenue passengers to ride deadheads on request, though it’s certainly not something that’s advertised. Plus, they usually aren’t very useful unless you want to go to 96th and South Tacoma Way. (It did come in handy for me once when I was at the Parkland Transit Center and needed to connect to Route 300.)

      1. T.K., Metro’s policy is similar where there are stops to pick up/let off the passengers (i.e., not to or from North Base), but drivers frequently play fast and loose with the policy to save time (e.g., flying past stops in the left lane when the right lane is slower). I certainly wouldn’t ever rely on a Metro deadhead unless I knew the driver.

      2. My understanding is that boarding a deadhead bus is only possible for trips crossing 520. You have to board at Montlake Freeway Station (or the stop right above it) in the eastbound direction. In the Westbound direction, you have a choice of either Evergreen Point or Yarrow Point freeway stations. This policy was put in place as a cheap solution to the problem of 20+ minute waits for a bus with an open bike rack just for a ride across the lake.

        In practice, deadhead buses across 520 run quite frequently during the peaks in the reverse-direction, with effective headways often on the order of 5 minutes or better at the right time of day. I know one person who lives in Seattle and works in the Bel-Red neighborhood who routinely relies on deadhead buses plus a bike to get to work.

        Other freeway stations (e.g. 520/40th, I-5/45th) generally require the bus to exit the freeway and wait at at least one stoplight. I have virtually never seen a deadhead bus go out of the way like this to see if anyone wants a ride.

      3. Deadheads are not required to exit the freeway at any place other than the 520 freeway stations. Deadheads on the surface are, in theory, required to stop on demand.

        Personally, I think adding in-service route numbers to deadheads — which make hundreds of different trips, some of which are completely unique, and others of which happen only a few times a day at very odd times — sounds like a passenger-confusion nightmare. Another issue with it is that many deadheads are by nature unreliable, happening at the end of (often rush-hour) trips with no recovery time.

  6. A survey suggests ridership of around 74… for now. Even if, in today’s rough jobs and housing markets, nobody quits or moves as a direct result of the office move, you’d expect normal attrition and recruitment processes to redistribute this office park’s working population from a concentration in Olympia to all around the Tacoma-Puyallup-Auburn area. And I wonder how many people are saying, “Sure, I’ll take a bus from Olympia to Puyallup every day… at least until I find another job — then the idiots that forced me into this commute can shove it.”

    So I’d be surprised if PT thought of this as a permanent arrangement or one targeted for future expansion, unless there turns out to be some other group of people living in Olympia and working in this one odd Puyallup office park that loves waking up before the sun.

    1. I wonder what percentage of the number of people who say they will ride the bus in surveys will actually do it in practice.

  7. It’d be nice if we had something that resembled our old network back… But alas, PT is going to focus on goddamn Olympia service?

    1. I have no problem with them providing service to Olympia, but it should be to restore the 601 or 603A trips that were cut a couple years ago. After all, those would actually be useful to Pierce County residents.

      JBLM seems like it would be a good candidate for worker-driver service similar to what Kitsap Transit (and its predecessor, the Bremerton-Charleston Transportation Co.) has operated to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard since World War II. To put it simply, they’re large-scale vanpools that use MCI coaches driven by operators who are civilian shipyard workers, but are also paid as KT operators for the trip to and from work each day.

      1. Thank you for pointing out to me the term “worker-driver service”! It sounds like an excellent cost-cutting program that should be far more widely used on peak expresses. Is there anything besides union contracts that’s stopping other bus systems from adopting it more widely?

      2. A lot of people are seriously bad drivers. The naval shipyard workers may be better at getting CDLs than average!

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