The last few weeks have been deeply discouraging for close followers of Metro. First we learned that Metro and the King County Council were raising the white flag on any significant effort to improve Link access, or bus service generally, in Capitol Hill. Then we got wind of Metro’s new proposal in SE Seattle, which would resurrect a redundant service pattern that Metro already canceled once because of low ridership, while cutting a couple of services proven over the years to perform better.
In both cases, the common thread is political interference with professional planning decisions. That needs to stop. In a time of plentiful resources, entire neighborhoods with thousands of residents–including Summit, east Capitol Hill, and Georgetown–are about to undergo major cuts in bus service for the sake of appeasing a few activists who do not represent many riders. The process hands ammunition freely to those who would paint transit as a sop to special interests and a waste of public money, rather than the core public infrastructure it is.
The Council adopted a professional service planning process (the Service Guidelines) in 2011, based on guidelines enacted into law, to avoid what had become a chronic pattern of micromanagement by Councils and Executives that left the county with an incomprehensible, spaghetti-like transit network. The process has resulted in meaningful service improvements and sharply increased ridership in neighborhoods across Metro’s service area, and helped ensure that Seattle’s Prop 1 funds went to solving real problems. But recent events, almost all occurring behind closed doors, appear to be signaling that the Council’s professional process is essentially dead, and Metro is back to direct planning by politicians and their appointees. Along with the public, we are reduced to relying on hearsay, rumor, and leaks; the players offer little or no insight into how decisions are made until after the fact. More details underlying this state of affairs as applied to Georgetown in particular, after the jump.
How Georgetown Loses In Metro’s Proposal
The SE Seattle proposal is centered around routes 38 and 106. It would split today’s 106 into three parts, restructuring them as follows:
- South part (Rainier Beach to Renton): Combined with route 38 to form “new 106,” and doubled to 15 minute frequency
- Middle part (South Beacon Hill): Replaced by an extension of route 107 at similar frequency
- North part (Georgetown to downtown): Not replaced at all, except with a few extra peak trips on route 124
In addition to repackaging the 106, the proposal does two other things:
- Reduces the 9X to peak-only, replaced at other times by transfers at 12th/Jackson between route 7 and the First Hill Streetcar or route 60
- Extends the “new 106” past Mount Baker into the International District, along the same route as the current route 7, and a very similar route to former route 42
Let’s look at who gains and loses under this proposal.
- Residents in Upper Rainier Beach, Skyway, and northwest Renton see their frequency double
- Riders along MLK gain a new frequent, one-seat connection to Renton
- The very few riders of former route 42 get their one-seat ride back–with quadrupled frequency overlapping an already ultra-frequent corridor!
- Riders in South Beacon Hill lose their one-seat downtown service, but gain connections to the rest of Beacon Hill, Link, and Renton, with no change in frequency.
- Riders in Georgetown see their downtown service cut in half (from 106 + 124 to 124 alone), except at peak hours in the peak direction. They get nothing in return.
- Riders of the midday 9X have to transfer, although the transfer is frequent on both ends.
To summarize, we trade major frequency improvement in Skyway and the resurrected one-seat ride between MLK and the International District for major frequency cuts in Georgetown.
The frequency improvement in Upper Rainier Beach and Skyway makes good sense. In 2014, route 106 served 5,100 daily riders. That is on the very high end of ridership for half-hourly routes, and well over half of those riders were from the southern portion of the route. Joining the south portion of the 106 with the 38 is also very logical, and will provide improved connectivity to riders of both routes without any meaningful downside.
The tradeoff that does not remotely make sense is cutting Georgetown service to fund the International District extension of the new 106. Route 124 carried 3,400 daily riders in 2014, with slow but steady increase in recent years. Data Metro provided to me this year indicates that about half of those riders were from the greater Georgetown area and points north, with the other half traveling to and from points further south. Current route 106 also picks up quite a few riders in Georgetown; between the 106 and 124, my estimate is that the Georgetown-downtown segment serves about 3,000 total daily riders. Combining these riders with the rest of route 124, I would estimate there are about 4,700 total daily north/south riders in the downtown/Georgetown/Tukwila corridor — more than Metro carries on a number of existing 15-minute routes. And, sure enough, Metro itself identifies the target frequency of the 124 corridor as 15 minutes in the most recent Service Guidelines Report.
In other words, Georgetown could be deprived of its existing (roughly) 15-minute frequency, despite ridership warranting it, in order to spend $2.5 million to restore a route segment that carried fewer than 100 daily riders in its final year.
We have heard multiple rumors that the 106 extension to the International District is being driven by the King County Executive’s office, not by Metro planners. We’ve also heard that SDOT was asked to help fund the extension with Prop 1 funds but refused, citing Metro’s own Service Guidelines. But rumors aren’t hard evidence, and we’ve made a public records request to Metro in an attempt to corroborate them. Sung Yang from the Executive’s office denied on the record that the Executive’s office is driving this proposal, attributing it directly to Metro planners in a conversation with STB’s Zach Shaner. Whichever part of King County actually originated the proposal, there is little reason to think it represents anything other than political interference with the planning process (perhaps at the behest of one or two disproportionately influential stakeholders), at the expense of a less well-connected area. In sharp contrast to the wealth of data Metro offered in support of its proposals during the early stages of the Link Connections process, we’ve seen no data of any sort that supports the 106 extension from a planning standpoint. Choosing winners and losers politically, in direct contradiction of data and the enacted planning process, is not how to build an effective transit network or use our tax dollars wisely.