The future of Sound Transit’s express bus services has long been unclear. Will express buses continue indefinitely as a peak layer on top of Link? Will they truncate at major Link terminals at increased frequency? Or will they disappear entirely in corridors served by Link? Sound Transit staff have long noted – relatively opaquely – that ST Express is legally an interim service to be discontinued upon introduction of high capacity transit in a corridor, but the details of service truncations or discontinuations has never been clear.
Yesterday at Sound Transit’s Operations and Administration Committee, we got the beginnings of an answer. Staff presented a report that outlined options for ST Express funding levels going into Sound Transit 3 (ST3). Today, ST Express consumes 754,000 service hours annually in 8 major corridors (I-5 North, I-5 South, I-90, SR 520, SR 522, I-405 North, I-405 South, and 2 Sounder Connectors).
Staff outlined 3 service hour options for ST Express in 2024: 490,000, 610,000, and 820,000 service hours. The Sound Transit 2 finance plan, adopted prior to the 2008 vote, assumed that service hours would be pared back to 490,000 annually once Link opens to Lynnwood, Des Moines, and Redmond in 2023, or roughly a 35% cut. This would result in mostly status quo service levels, with Link taking over major routes such as 511, 550, etc. Confusingly, the 610,000 hour option, though a 20% cut from today’s service levels, would require the Board to allocate 25% more funds to ST Express than assumed under ST2. Lastly, the 820,000 hour option would be an 8% increase over today’s service hours (and a 67% boost in funding over the 490k baseline), on top of Link every 8 minutes from Lynnwood-Des Moines and every 8 minutes Lynnwood-Redmond.
For the first time, all options explicitly assume aggressive bus truncation at Link terminals, taking ST Express out of Link-served corridors (and out of Downtown Seattle). Buses would truncate at Lynnwood Station, 145th Street, UW Station, Bellevue Downtown Station, and Kent/Des Moines Station.
In both the 610k and 810k scenarios, service hours saved through truncation are reinvested in frequency improvements throughout the system, with the more aggressive options being particularly attractive. During peak, service could run every 5-10 minutes between Everett-Lynnwood, Woodinville-145th, Lakewood-Des Moines, and Issaquah-Bellevue. In a huge step up for ST Express, service would also be frequent 7 days per week everywhere in the system except the two I-405 corridors, which would only see frequent service during peak.*
These proposed truncations apply only to ST Express, and though it was stressed that service planning will be much more integrated between agencies going forward, the future of Metro and Community Transit’s peak-only services in these corridors will be considered by their respective agencies.
Lastly, though unremarked upon at the committee meeting, the I-90 plans all assume truncation in Downtown Bellevue with Link transfers at South Bellevue Station. It would seem that Mercer Island is winning their battle to keep transit off the island.
*It’s also important to note that these options are agnostic about the existence of an I-405 BRT System, which could swing the service hour needs by ~50,000 hours.