For the past few months, Community Transit has been celebrating its 40th anniversary, culminating this week with a Customer Appreciation Day this morning, Employee Appreciation Day on Wednesday, and a special board meeting on Thursday with Governor Jay Inslee in attendance.
Community Transit is the largest suburban agency in the Seattle area, barely eclipsing Pierce Transit in ridership, and has one of the most visible presences on Seattle’s streets at rush hour in the form of their “Double Tall” buses. To celebrate, I’ve hastily prepared this history of the agency using notes I had compiled during earlier research for other projects. Enjoy the read and wish a happy 40th to Community Transit.
Community Transit was one of the first transit agencies to be created under Washington state’s new “public transportation benefit area” mechanism, which allows for special taxing districts within portions of counties to levy taxes for transit. It took three public votes, two in late 1974 and another in June 1976, to finally fund transit in Snohomish County; the difference between the votes came in the exclusion of Everett, whose residents voted heavily against the new system, which would cost more in taxes and fares than the city’s own bus network. Everett would go on to retain its independent transit system well into the present day, despite several attempts to merge it with the larger county system.
At the time, the only real transit options in Snohomish County came in two forms: private bus companies, and Metro runs from Seattle. Metro took over the routes from the Metropolitan Transit Corporation, who primarily served the Eastside, in 1973 and had a limited amount of all-day service to Downtown Edmonds and Lynnwood.
On October 4, 1976, the “SCPTBA Public Transit” began running buses in the cities of Brier, Edmonds, Lynnwood, Marysville, Mountlake Terrace, Snohomish and Woodway, with some limited service in Everett, using 18 leased buses. In its early days, many referred to the system as the “Blue Bus” and it had no defined bus routes, running between shopping centers and other points of interest . The first route network in the late 1970s used prefixes to differentiate between service types, with I routes heading to the U District, R routes to North Snohomish County, and S routes in South Snohomish County. The use of prefixes would carry over into the present day, with the grouping of local routes in the 100s (South County) and 200s (North County).
SCPTBA would later choose “Community Transit” as its public name in 1979. Other suggestions submitted in a contest included “Snohomish Little Urban Goers” (SLUG), “Overland Express”, “Fast Omnibus to Necessary Zones” (FONZ), the popular and already-taken “Snohomish County Area Transit” (SCAT), and eventual winner “Snohomish Area Metro” (SAM) and runner-up “Sno-Transit”.
In its infancy, the transit agency was heavily reliant on other organizations, especially the county’s now defunct transportation planning body, SNOTRAN, and King County Metro, who still ran commuter service into the county and created the 400 series of routes (still used today) in 1981. Community Transit began taking over commuter service in the late 1980s, handing the reins to private operators like ATE Management much to the chagrin of Metro and transit unions. CT built its first bus base near Paine Field in 1985, replacing shared accommodations with the Edmonds School District and Everett Transit, using federal funding.
In 1993, Community Transit was at the center of an FBI criminal investigation after allegations that an employee received gifts in exchange for bypassing the standard government bidding process, specifically for repairing bus parts. After seizing records from CT headquarters with the sheriff’s department, a federal court found the owner of a transmission shop supplying the agency with bus parts guilty of mail fraud after intentionally over-billing for repairs.
Regional connectivity and growth
With the formation of the regional transit authority in 1993 (later Sound Transit), Community Transit was given a role in planning a rapid transit system that would later become our modern Link light rail. In 1999, Sound Transit took over mid-day express service from southwestern Snohomish County to Seattle and Bellevue and slowly expanded their network from there. ST also helped fund the construction of the county’s second-largest park-and-ride at Ash Way, the renovated Lynnwood Transit Center, Sounder commuter rail and stations at Edmonds, Mukilteo and Everett (the latter also a major bus transfer point).
Throughout the mid-1990s, Everett Transit resisted efforts from the state legislature to merge with Community Transit through extensive lobbying and eventually determining that the current lack of overlapping service was sufficient enough. After the passage of I-695 in 1999 and subsequent bus service cuts, Community Transit proposed stopping all service within Everett city limits, requiring through-trips to transfer once or twice. CT and ET eventually agreed to have the former run limited-stop service within Everett city limits, with routes bypassing large swaths of the city to serve transfer points and destinations of countywide importance.
Cuts and innovations
The affects of I-695 would be nullified by a 0.3 percent sales tax increase approved by voters in 2001, which funded the return of Sunday service and a modest increase of service as well as replacing a sixth of the aging fleet. CT brought the first low-floor articulated buses to the United States, which are slowly being retired this year, and began donating retired DART vehicles to non-profits to keep the number of surplus vehicles down.
The relative stability of the 2000s allowed Community Transit to pursue experimental projects in order to appeal to would-be drivers. It rolled out a new logo and slogan (“Smile and ride”) in 2005 and introduced the New Flyer “Invero“, a bus with plusher seats, a futuristic plug door, aerodynamic styling, security cameras, climate controls and other new features. They continue to ply the street, having not caught on among other U.S. agencies and being cancelled entirely by New Flyer two years later. A Wi-Fi pilot project, similar to other programs conducted by Sound Transit and Metro, was put into place on Stanwood-Seattle trips and was expanded to other routes before being scrapped entirely in 2010.
Community Transit introduced the state’s first bus rapid transit system, Swift, in November 2009 to great acclaim. While Metro’s RapidRide covers more of King County, Swift regularly ranks higher in quality of service, with limited stops (and underlying service), level boarding, off-board payment, interior bike racks, real-time arrivals information, and other features common to BRT systems internationally.
CT brought another international innovation, the double-decker bus, to the region in 2007 on a long-term trial. The “Double Tall”, as it was known, proved successful enough for the agency to place an order of 23 buses that would be delivered in 2011 using federal funding; a second order in 2015 brought the fleet to nearly 50, and there are still plans to replace more of the fleet with double-deckers.
The Great Recession from 2008 onwards led to a loss of $180 million in sales tax revenue for Community Transit, forcing huge cut backs. 160,000 service hours were eliminated in 2010 and 2012, cancelling Sunday service and severely affecting local route frequencies to preserve commuter service.
Community Transit today
Despite the troubles of the late 2000s, the stars have aligned recently for Community Transit to stage a much-needed recovery. The agency began restoring service in 2013 on the tide of rising sales tax revenue, and was given a 0.3 percent sales tax increase by voters in 2015 for even more service. Buses now ply the streets and backroads of the county on Sundays, albeit at sparse frequencies, and reach new areas along Highway 9. A new Swift line from the Boeing plant to Canyon Park is in the works for 2019, and commuters can look forward to light rail service reaching Lynnwood in 2023 (possibly accompanied by a reinvestment of bus service hours into the local network).
While recovery to pre-Recession levels will still take a few more years, Community Transit seems poised to continue expanding past former service levels and into new territory. The current long range plan (due for an update soon) lays out a network of Swift bus rapid transit lines criss-crossing the county all the way north to Smokey Point, west to Edmonds and east to Silver Firs, while also improving local service and desiring an integration of transit-oriented development along the new network.
As a daily Community Transit rider, I can’t express enough gratitude to the thousands of people who worked to make it a reality and continue to keep buses running smoothly and frequently. Happy 40th, Community Transit, and here’s to 40 more years connecting this county of ours.