Seattle’s $50M yearly investment in additional bus service has helped deliver frequent transit service to a majority of households in the city. After three years, the percentage of families living near routes with transit service every 10 minutes has more than doubled, SDOT says. Now a driver shortage could limit the extra service Seattle can buy from King County Metro Transit, as the city strives to bring frequent transit service to even more households this year.
In 2014, voters approved Proposition 1, which created the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) to pay for increased bus service funded by a $60 licensing fee and a 0.1% sales tax increase. The funding increased the frequency of buses and eased overcrowding by adding 270,000 hours of annual bus service to 68 bus routes.
Three years later, the city estimates 64% of households are within a 10-minute walk of all-day transit service running every 10 minutes or better, up from 25% in 2015, leaving the city only 8 percentage points away from its 2025 goal of 72% of households.
“As soon as the service gets out there, it gets filled up with riders,” said Andrew Glass-Hastings, SDOT’s director of transit and mobility, while giving members of the Sustainability and Transportation Committee the annual STBD report in January. “It’s a good thing, but it also means we are continually a little bit behind meeting demand for service.”
He pointed specifically to RapidRide Lines C and D, which remain overcrowded even as Seattle pays for more than a third of the service for both routes. But a Metro labor shortage might limit the city’s ability to purchase additional bus service.
“In a tight labor market, Metro is struggling to attract enough operators for their buses,” Glass-Hastings said. “So, although we are very fortunate to have strong resources to build toward this goal of 72% over the next year, we are bumping up on some constraints on our transit partner to meet that.”
Metro spokesperson, Jeff Switzer, said the agency needs to hire about 100 new drivers to deliver the upcoming March 2018 service changes. The transit agency makes major service changes twice a year, in March and September.
“The pace of growth over the past four years has challenged our agency not only with operator hiring but also staffing in other key positions; and in operations and maintenance base capacity,” Switzer wrote in an email. “Metro is working to hire for positions throughout the agency that are critical to delivering service, such as mechanics and more front line supervisory staff to manage the service in real time.”
the city Metro has 1,903 full-time and 993 part-time drivers. (And is still hiring!) Switzer said in 2017 and 2018, Metro is adding a total of about 300,000 hours of new service, bringing Metro’s yearly service total to 4.26M hours.
Switzer said Metro hires operators continuously, but major service changes can result in temporary shortages of operators, increasing the number of canceled trips. He estimated the agency is hiring and training about a dozen new part-time drivers each week. On average, part-time drivers work for about nine months before moving to full-time. Switzer said even on the worst of days, the agency is typically delivering over 99% of the service scheduled.
Switzer said another constraint the agency is facing is finding places to park and maintain buses. Currently, all Metro bus bases are over optimal capacity, but the agency is working on several projects to expand base capacity and support service expansion system-wide, he added.
Metro service is also purchased by the cities of Auburn, Issaquah, Kent, Mercer Island, Redmond, and Sammamish. In addition, the transit agency has service partnerships with private companies and schools.
“We try to work with [Seattle] to bring our service goals into alignment as much as possible, but our current growth constraints are something we both have to work around,” Switzer wrote in an email.