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Bel Air Airport Bus at Anacortes Ferry Terminal
BellAir Airport Van at Anacortes Ferry Terminal, by Glenn Laubaugh (“Glenn in Portland”)

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I ventured north from Portland through Seattle and returned as part of an all-transit trip to the San Juan Islands in very late May of 2013.

In very early August of 2013, I decided to try another trip north. A few days of this would be spent in the San Juan Islands, but on the way back I thought I would hit the Anacortes Arts Festival. Sadly, this works best on Friday, since transit service in that area is extremely limited on Saturday and nearly non-existent on Sundays.

As I noted in Part 2, I have my hesitations about trying to make any sort of tight connection coming south, thanks to an experience in 2010 that turned what should have been a reasonably quick SoundTransit express bus trip into a very long, slow trip on I-5. I thought that trying to leave Anacortes too late in the day would get me into trouble trying to transfer to Amtrak 509 coming back to Portland.

So why not try the Bellair Airport Shuttle? After all, it goes a bit faster than local buses, it doesn’t have the mid-day break in service of the Skagit Transit connector, and goes right to King Street Station, so what’s the problem?

It USED to go to King Street Station. That part of the service got chopped out in May of 2013, and the downtown Seattle stop was moved to the convention center. Also, the downtown Seattle stop became only three trips each day – none of those were particularly helpful for this particular trip.

However, they do go to the airport, and backtracking to King Street Station on Link isn’t too bad. The effective trip becomes slower, but is still competitive with the series of transit buses on I-5. There is also the possibility of going from the SeaTac airport to Tacoma on an express bus if needed, and getting Amtrak there.

So, I made a reservation for a very early afternoon departure from Anacortes, and some requisite Amtrak reservations. Arriving at SeaTac at 3:45 pm, it seemed like this would still be more than enough time for a connection to train 509.

As the title implies, unbeknownst to me the Murphy fields (the somewhat more sinister cousin of magnetic fields) were somewhat stronger than normal that day.

Going North

The trip north in very late July of 2013 is described in Part 3.

On The Islands

For the record, I had no trouble getting around on either San Juan Island or Orcas Island using San Juan Transit. The very limited schedules were, well, a bit limiting.

The Trip South

As noted in Part 3, I timed this trip so that I could visit the Anacortes art festival. I plotted my return trip so that I could go from the ferry terminal to Anacortes proper on Sakgit Transit 410 and spend a few hours at the Arts Festival before heading south. I was able to enjoy pretty much the entire arts festival, including the juried show in one of the old port warehouses at the far north side of town.

The Bellair bus stop listed for Anacortes was “Anacortes Shell Station”, but this didn’t describe very well the situation. The bus stop was a very obscure sign in the exact center of the block, surrounded on all sides by private parking and gas station related development.  Even with the directions listed on the web site I didn’t find it easy to find.

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“Airporter Shuttle” Sign on light post by Shell station air pump shows location of Bellair Airporter bus stop, by Glenn Laubaugh (“Glenn in Portland”)

Several passengers were standing outside waiting when it started to rain fairly hard. An attendant at the nearby Westside Pizza parlor invited us inside to stay dry, and I dropped a couple of bucks in his tips jar for his efforts. Other than this, there really isn’t any shelter, or even a painted waiting spot that is segregated from the surrounding parking lot traffic.

Bellair’s shuttle arrived and departed on time at 12:30 pm. This is a small van (see photo at top) that only serves to connect Bellair’s main line north-south bus route to Anacortes and the ferry terminal. It’s a tight fit for those with lots of luggage, but its not a long trip and it is the appropriate sized bus for the trip.

After the relatively quick trip to Burlington, the bus pulled up to a portable office structure, and everyone was invited inside for the brief wait for the carefully timed connection for the southbound bus.

Half an hour later, we were still waiting, and we were then informed that the bus would be there soon, but was stuck in heavy traffic on Interstate 5.

Eventually, the bus did in fact show up, and southward we crawled in a traffic jam that stretched as far as the eye could see.

If there were opportunity to get off somewhere, and transfer to local transit heading into downtown Seattle, I would certainly have taken it at this point. However, the only stops between Burlington and SeaTac are the Tulalip Casino and Stanwood (which must be reserved far in advance and was not utilized this trip). It is unfortunate that such a connection to other services isn’t offered. Physically there in the middle of I-5 is South Everett Park and Ride that could serve as a decent transfer point on the north side of town, but politically / management wise it doesn’t work for a bus to the airport to stop there.

Somewhat south of Everett, the driver announced that the dispatcher had told him to take Interstate 405 around Seattle rather than I-5 though Seattle, as that would be faster. Thanks to the HOV lanes northbound traffic was moving fine, but southbound traffic was definitely not.

Half an hour later the bus was still crawling through congested traffic and people were making frantic calls to their airline companies.

Ultimately, the bus crawled to a stop at SeaTac at 5 pm, some hour and 15 minutes late.

My options to Go South?

As it takes around 45 minutes or so to get from the SeaTac airport to King Street Station on Link it was going to be very tight to get to train 509 that way, and considering the state of traffic I doubt any alternative short of a jet pack would have worked any better.

The BoltBus web site said the evening 8:00 pm departure to Portland was sold out.

I looked into the SoundTransit express bus to Tacoma and trying to catch up with my train there. Sadly, the scheduled time for this express was an hour and 10 minutes, and even with train 509 leaving Seattle at 5:30 it would still be gone from Tacoma by the time I got there.

Trying to get from SeaTac to the Tukwila station yielded a trip a little over an hour – the best result would be getting there about 15 minutes after the 509 had left.

Taxi to Tukwila might have been an option, but at an estimated cab fare price of $30, it was almost as much as I had spent on the bus trip from Anacortes to SeaTac, less than I had spent on the Amtrak ticket, and was a bit more than I wanted to spend.

Resolved that there was no way to get between SeaTac and any Amtrak stations in time to catch the southbound, I cancelled my reservation with Amtrak. As long as you do this before train departure time, there is no real penalty.

I thought I would at least show up at the BoltBus stop and see if they had an extra seat, but there were several hours to kill in the meantime. I went over to the car rental office just to see what one-way car rental from SeaTac to Portlad would run, and the cheapest walk-up fare I could find there was $250.

I could get a fairly decent hotel and get the morning train and still come out ahead on that one, so I certainly didn’t consider that an option, but it was interesting to see what the competition was charging.

As it happened there were two empty seats on the “8:00 pm” BoltBus departure, after all the ticketed passengers had borded. These empty seats are sold on a whoever makes the loudest noise first to the driver first, who overseas the cash sale transaction. They are cash only. I happened to have enough cash on hand and managed to grab one of those empty seats.

I can definitely picture this becoming a bidding war with the driver winding up with some decent cash bonuses.

Even at the 8:45 pm departure (BoltBus isn’t immune from traffic delays either and the bus had to go through the same mess that Bellair just had), traffic was still a horrific mess from downtown Seattle through a middle of nowhere point somewhat south of Tumwater. The bus finally arrived in downtown Portland around 11:45 pm, with the driver saying “We managed to do it in three hours, which is slower than usual but it is still faster than you can do it on Greyhound or Amtrak.”

It had taken essentially 11 hours from Anacortes to Portland.

Doing This Trip Today:

The timetables I used at Bellair are virtually unchanged from 2013. As BoltBus now has regular priced seats as high as $27 listed on their web site, I would imagine that the walk-up cash ticket price is higher than what I wound up paying.

In apparent acknowledgement of the traffic situation, BoltBus has increased its scheduled time between Seattle and Portland. Even the last evening trip is scheduled for 3 hours 15 minutes. As with the previous timetable, I’m sure they usually do it faster than this.

Another timetable change: thanks to the addition of RapidRide between Tukwila International Boulevard and Tukwila Amtrak / Sounder stations, it is now possible to make the SeaTac Airport to Tukwila station in a blistering 45 minutes instead of the hour required in 2013. With the 5 pm arrival of Bellair at SeaTac this might have allowed me to get my originally intended train. The 2013 timetable, as well as today’s timetable, has Amtrak 509 going through at 5:44 pm, so I probably would have at least attempted this. However, had I missed the train I would have lost the Amtrak ticket due to not being able to cancel the ticket before the train departed from Seattle.

I might consider purchasing a refundable 6:30 pm departure on Greyhound (BoltBus doesn’t offer this option) so that should I have been able to actually make my intended train I would have a ticket I could cancel. I would have to do some research into how Greyhound’s policies work on this.

Some Room for Improvement:

  • It would be nice if BoltBus had a way of registering people for walk-up tickets so that it was clear what order the line should be. As it was the bus driver happened to point to me, but could just as easily have pointed to any number of other people waiting in the standing crowd of walk-up ticket people.
  • Some sort of transit alternative that doesn’t involve Interstate 5. One of the reasons why Sounder North is so expensive per passenger is that there are no reverse train moves, so the crews are only used once per direction per day. There certainly seems to be more than enough traffic demand to support at least one reverse move. Maybe try to combine funding with the state for an additional train originating at Bellingham?
  • Based on my experience over at the car rental facility, there must be somewhere around 20 buses in circulation at any one time at SeaTac to serve the car rental facility. For the most part . This seems like a huge waste of money, and most of the time the buses seemed to be laying over at the car rental facility. If someone could figure out how to send one of those down the hill to the Tukwila Amtrak / Sounder station a few times per day to meet the trains when they are operating, the 45 minute transit trip becomes about 10 minutes.
  • It would sure be nice of Bellair and the various agencies could figure out a way to get an additional stop somewhere on the north side of Seattle that would work as a transfer point between Bellair service and the various other transportation services. This could be particularly important in another 10 years, as I’m quite certain that most of my fellow passengers would have preferred to get a Link train at Lynnwood to SeaTac rather than continue the southbound freeway crawl with its late arrival at the airport. I might have still been able to make my train had I been able to connect with one of the express buses at South Everett. Lynnwood would not have been an option due to the I-405 routing chosen by the dispatcher for this trip.

3 Replies to “To The San Juan Islands by Transit, Part 4: Slowest Trip Back”

  1. With the gap in service on the 90X, the best possible timing you can do on regular public transit is leave Anacortes at 12:35 and get to King Street Station at 4:45 pm. Considering the traffic on I-5 this would really be pushing the chances of missing train 509.

    The only other southbound alternatives are early in the morning, or involve using Island Transit to go the length of Whidbey Island, as described in Part 2.

  2. If I were in your position at Sea-Tac, I would just pick up my phone and call Lyft or Uber. While they are currently forbidden from picking up at the airport, one can trivially work around these rules by walking one block down International Blvd. and having them pick you up at a nearby hotel. There are usually tons of Lyft and Uber drivers crawling around the airport, as they are constantly dropping people off there, even if they can’t legally do pickups.

    That said, even if a $30 taxi fare were the only way to make the train, I probably still would have done it.

    I agree it is ridiculous that there is no way to transfer from the BellAir bus to Sound Transit at any of the freeway stations. I once took a trip from Mt. Vernon to the U-district on an Amtrak bus, and being able to get off at Everett and transfer to the 510 saved boatloads of time.

    At the moment, taking a 75-minute trip to the airport on bus+Link to go north on I-5 is more than I am willing to stomach.

    1. Especially when I-5 can turn that 75 minutes into maple syrup, as it did for me.

      Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want, I suppose.

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