1907 Irrigation Bridge

Nestled by the confluence of Wenatchee and Columbia Rivers, the City of Wenatchee is framed by some of the most dramatic scenery in the state. A small urban core of about fifty thousand people, squeezed into a bench around the confluence, serves as the primary urban center for a huge rural hinterland that extends roughly from Leavenworth at the southwest, Ephrata at the southeast, and 145 miles east of north up US 97 to the Canadian border. I think of Wenatchee as the gateway to Washington’s Big Sky Country, and it seems many other visitors are similarly taken, as the area is struggling with a housing affordability crisis ($).

Wenatchee is a railroad town, and it owes its location primarily to the choices of the Great Northern. Headed west from Saint Paul to Puget Sound, the GN crossed one of its major obstacles, the mighty and wild Columbia, at its narrowest point in Washington, before threading its way up the Cashmere Valley towards Stevens Pass. That westerly alignment, which made Wenatchee well-connected in the era of the railroad, has made the city an island in the age of the macadam road: there are exactly two road bridges carrying one paved road, WA 285, through the urban core, which can suffer startlingly bad car congestion given the small population.

The political and business leaders of Wenatchee have exhibited more progressive thought around transportation policy than one might expect. While the north end of Wenatchee Ave is a hellscape of roaring engines, drive-thrus and giant parking lots, the downtown business association formed a LID in 1989 [PDF page 40] to convert the historic central section into a calm, pedestrian-oriented street. WSDOT-owned land riverfront land on the east bank of the Columbia, once slated for a freeway, has become part of a non-motorized trail system, which notably includes a historic bridge over the Columbia initially designed for wagons and irrigation pipe. The city recently engaged the marginalized South Wenatchee neighborhood in a subarea planning process that yielded safe walking facilities as the top priority.

In a similarly forwarding-thinking vein, Link Transit was founded in 1989 to provide transit service to Chelan and Douglas counties. Today, the agency provides all-day bus and paratransit service throughout the urban core, with a more skeletal service radiating out to smaller towns along the US 2, US 97 and WA 28 corridors. In 2009, Link pioneered battery buses on a set of short, high-frequency urban routes — a bold move for a small agency. This November, car-free mobility in north-central Washington will take another big step forward if voters approve a 0.2% sales tax increase for Link. This ballot measure arises from a planning process which found that residents both wanted more transit options, and were willing to pay for it.

To find out more about Link’s plans, I exchanged emails with planner Lauren Loebsack. 

STB: Could you describe for my readers the current level of service offered by Link?

LT: Internally, we refer to our level of service as “enhanced basic access”. Our service span is about 6AM to 7PM on weekdays and fewer route on Saturday running about 7AM to 6PM. We can get you to where you need to go, but some places, such as the small towns or outlying residential neighborhoods, don’t yet have even hourly service, and our Saturday service is pretty lean. But within the downtown, around the college and across the George Sellar Bridge [between downtown Wentachee and Valley Mall in East Wenatchee], we offer 15 minute frequency through most of the day.

STB: Could you talk about the battery trolley service and the history of that?

LT: The battery electric bus effort has been challenging at times — we have been at the forefront of the technology and that comes with unique challenges.

We started this journey in 2007 with e-Bus, and we are still able to keep those buses in service, however the batteries did not prove to be able to handle the cold of our winters and the heat of our summers. But we still run them as much as we can, they do a lot of heavy lifting in the downtown on our “Current” service line- our urban, high frequency, electric bus service. We have three routes (Current A, Current B, and Current C) and those provide 15 minutes service during the day with our Current A being our highest ridership.

We are now working with BYD and they have been incredibly committed to making this technology work for Link. We just installed our first fast charger, which will be tested on a retrofitted BYD in the coming weeks. And fast charging will be what truly makes this electric bus technology work for us; at this time we have to program in time into the run cut to charge these vehicles with a slow charger during the day. Once we are able to fast charge the BYD buses, the ballet of slow charging can end and we can deploy all of our buses into the service area. Our community consistently supports our efforts to move to an electric urban fleet and that goal remains unchanged for Link. We now have 10 electric buses and are looking to grow that to 15, once this fast charging work and a few other technological wrinkles are ironed out. Our region is a lovely, natural place and we want to be part of protecting that, as well as the smart move to take advantage of our low rates for hydroelectricity.

STB: Could you give me an idea of what new services you’d offer, and what the final level of service would be like, if this tax is approved?

LT: As anyone in transit knows, the traveling needs of a community are dynamic, so some details may change as time goes on. However, during our public outreach on this topic in 2016 and 2017, we received a consistent message: better Saturday service, Sunday and some holiday service, and later/earlier service. Our area has undergone big changes in the last decade as tourism has grown and workers of non-traditional schedules need to travel between cities in the region to access their employment. We are also hearing an interest in choice ridership for recreation and “stay and play” style tourism service.

So first we would fill in Saturday service and implement our Sunday service- these were the top responses to our surveys on the subject. I foresee Link also expanding our weekday service at that time, depending on resources (the board is committed to a phased in approach to the proposed increase, from 0.1% for two or three years, to 0.2% after and the number of years of the phase in has not been settled). Next we would begin expanding our service area; some neighborhoods have been specifically called out for service during our public outreach and we’d like to improve service to and within the smaller towns and neighborhoods in our service area. Particularly as the population and tourism have increased, we’re seeing timing impacts to our commuter routes as we enter into these areas.

Additional funds would allow us to implement local circulators within these areas that draw our guests out from these neighborhoods, to trunk lines, and to really enhance the element of our service we take pride in: connecting communities.

Finally, implementing high frequency trunk lines, so that within the urban corridor and along the major highway routes, someone interested in riding doesn’t have long to wait for a direct trip between major transit nodes. I believe that this could be the biggest draw to choice ridership, reducing the wait time and thereby enhancing the convenience of the choice to use transit.

STB: What speed/reliability/other capital investments would be included in the package?

LT: We have taken small steps toward implementing what we refer to as a “BRT Lite” on US 2 between Leavenworth and Wenatchee. We have a robust commuter ridership there, but what we continue to hear is that the travel time does not compete with driving. Creating that infrastructure, from planning the stops, purchasing the right-of-way and developing the facilities will likely be one of our first capital efforts. To create truly distinct commuter routes and local route will speed up those travel times and increase reliability. Should that “BRT Lite” style service prove successful, I foresee Link using that as a template for implementation of similar service on US 97, US 97A and WA 285.

STB: Could you outline the Confluence Parkway effort, and how Link would leverage that potential new road into Wenatchee?

LT: The Confluence Parkway has been adopted as the regional preferred alternative to address mobility issues and Link Transit has been a member of the stakeholder group from the beginning. The leaders in our region understand the importance of transit as part of a larger solution for moving people safely and effectively and the transit element has always been a big part of the discussion.

Since the original development of a bypass-style parkway plan, this project has seen a lot of changes. What the final result will look like will obviously influence how we serve that route. The original plan was to use this parkway as a direct route for deadheads, getting those buses off North Wenatchee Avenue that are not in service to help alleviate the congestion there and reduce our deadhead time. The plan for Confluence Parkway now sounds a lot more like an alternative access, with slower speeds and with more access and discussion has moved back to finding solutions on North Wenatchee Avenue, options such as queue jumping. This would be another new experience for Link and we are excited to see what the future holds and glad to be part of the discussion now.

10 Replies to “Wenatchee’s Link Transit Goes to the Ballot”

  1. Thanks for the link, Bruce. If you still live in Seattle, as a voter you’re in a position to pressure your elected officials to make the speculating perpetrators of the crisis pay taxes toward its remedy.

    Meantime, just idly wonder how many of those battery-buses’ current passengers will still be Able to AFFORD to live in same city with them this time next year.

    Mark Dublin

  2. It may be 25 years since I’ve last seen Wenatchee, but living in a county that’s renovating in the same way, could someone who’s been there recently give us an honest report.

    Which one of these has more to say about the service area for the new buses:

    This one?

    Or this one?

    Because from what I’m seeing of the real face of new development- which in itself is badly needed by so much of our State….life or death of every transit system in our country depends on its not ending up like this:


    Many thanks to yesterday’s commenters for submitting these. I’m sorry they’re now On Topic for so much.


    1. Central and Eastern Washington are close enough to the tech/creativity/prosperity coast to have knock-off benefits. The same thing is happening with successful organic farms, solar-panel manufacturers, data-center backends and the like. Cheap electricity and irrigation are significant factors. I’ve also bought a painting from an artist who lives in Wenatchee and displayed at the U-District street fair. I’ve only been to Wenatchee a couple times so I know little about it, but my impression is it was a struggling town until new opportunities arose in the 2000s. People who can’t afford to live in Pugetopolis and/or like small towns are moving to Wenatchee and the other towns near major highways. But that’s not really what the first article is about. Retiring to a town 200 miles away (either for an independent career or real retirement) is not the same as moving hundreds of miles to another state, with or without your family. It just shows that Wenatchee is within the fringe of Seattle’s “metropolitan area” in the wide sense. Similar towns further from a prosperous metropolis are still struggling, sometimes worse than they were in the 90s.

      I also have several doubts about the Vox article. It’s right that antitrust law changed for the worse, but it misses the biggest point. Antitrust law was originally to prevent large companies from having too much political power, basically to buy politicians or avalanche them with lobbying. That and price-fixing. In the post-Reagan era the DOJ has focused solely on consumer prices and (to some extent) choice. If we reverse it in the way Vox is suggesting, we still won’t address the problem of big-corporation influence on government.

      I also don’t see that people moving several states away is necessarily a good thing. It’s probably better to bring the conditions for a robust economy to their home region. Jane Jacobs talks about this in “The Economy of Cities”. Basically, cities allow people with different ideas to casually meet, and that generates creativity and business ideas and leads to new industries and exports (or at least new to the region). It happens most in large cities but it can happen in small cities like Wenatchee too. In Jacobs’ book she talks about the outskirts of Toronto; I think comparable areas like Kent and Issaquah where a lot of business growth has occurred, independent warehouses and manufacturers and such. Things most people don’t notice, but can lead to larger-scale economic growth and people’s fulfillment. Wenatchee is certainly doing things that would help this; i.e., improving pedestrian connections that lead to more casual encounters like Jacobs talks about. In rural areas far from any city there may be no realistic alternative but to move: Jacobs says rural areas progress more slowly because of the lack of casual encounters and connections between different people. But certainly for Rust Belt and Midwestern cities that are stagnating, and Sunbelt cities dependent on oil prosperity and with isolating land use and mentality, these changes could help. So I don’t think we should see long-distance migration, huge corporations, and rising inequality as tightly linked. They may overlap in some aspects but they’re probably loose or contradictory in others. We need to focus on the nationwide problems of rising inequality and corporate dominance, rather than seeing migration as any kind of solution or significant factor.

  3. Wenatchee native here. Housing in the area is very tight at the moment. There is a dearth of multi-family housing. Vacancy rates are insanely low and people purchasing homes are waiting months for appraisals. Most of the economy is centered around services, as most people in the surrounding areas (Quincy, Ephrata, Leavenworth) come to Wenatchee for shopping and healthcare. Confluence health is one of the cities largest employers and services a huge swath of central Washington. The downtown core is quite pleasant and fairly walkable. The city has spent considerable effort redeveloping the waterfront. They renovated a steel mill as a public market and have started building several apartment complexes nearby. Since that area of the city is bisected by railroad tracks it can be difficult to find a crossing when freight trains pass through, which is a major obstacle for city planners. Traffic along the main drag has definitely gotten worse over the years, and the state has spent a lot of time alleviating chokepoints near the bridges. Most of the outer neighborhoods in the valley aren’t conducive for frequent transit, so automobiles are really a necessity if you want to go pretty much anywhere. However, Link has really done a great job serving areas where there is demand. It will be interesting to see how service is expanded as the valley continues to grow. I doubt many residents would be keen to increase density in most neighborhoods, despite the limited options for new housing or road construction.

  4. Sounds like Wenatchee is simply coming into the modern world. Long overdue. Wouldn’t worry too much about transit-avid right now. Given the terrain, could be awhile before transit’s most compelling condition comes about: so many cars horizon to horizon that nobody can move. Especially inside their cars.

    But best of all, indication that Washington east of the mountains can now pry itself out of the bony legislative grip of the Far Right. Though wish I could be happier about that. Because ever since liberals scared themselves into calling themselves “Progressives”, low income and lack of college have started becoming the new race prejudice, war mongering, and gender intolerance combined.

    Tell me: How much have the new economic changes benefited people whose families are still too close to being obsolesced farm and factory workers for server farms and health care corporations to need them??

    And people who do work in those places: How long can they stay in an apartment, let alone a house, before someone too poor to live in Seattle, but rich enough to buy Chelan County gives them three weeks’ notice?

    Well, none of this is set in stone, and from what I can see of them, the people just turning voting age will take care of many deficient things, from work opportunities to transit. Which around Wenatchee can get by without station elevators and escalators.

    Irreversible sign that the tide has turned: When kids in Seattle start running away to Wenatchee. Maybe a Radio Free Chelan can help.


  5. How do you define ” housing affordability crisis”. SmartAsset.com lists Cities Where the Median Income Buys the Most Home. With Wenatchee-East Wenatchee household income of $52,231 (2016) and median list price per square foot in Wenatchee is $203 the same metric means you can buy around 1,300 square feet of home. That would vault it to the top of the list.

    Why was median income showing a -8.42% 1 year change in 2016? Possibly a redefinition of the area boundary. We were actually looking at Wenatchee as a possible retirement community 20 years ago. But the town started to fall into such disrepair we gave up on even vacationing there. The last few years it’s seen a significant rebound. The Pybus Market is a stellar example of “the new Wenatchee”. Never let such a crises go to waste. FWIW, local news yesterday said the fastest appreciating homes in the city were South Seattle; specifically Mt Baker and Rainier Valley. Maybe we need to invest billions in transit dollars to fix the affordability crises…. oh, wait.

    1. “Foxes have dens, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.”

      Matthew 8:19–20; Luke 9:57–58.

      So I guess figure for Affordability (In stolen hens, seeds or flown-away-with sheep, Sesteriae, or whole Roman Empires) ….depended on whether you were a fox or an Emperor who thought he was a smart as one until his brother, who was a weasel, stuck a knife in him.

      Throughout History, during their short lives, brave revolutionaries usually don’t have to worry about it as long as they’re on good terms with foxes and ravens. Town of Wenatchee, Province of Washington, XX XVIII? When multibillionaires chased out of Seattle by Amazon can’t afford the rest of the continent.

      Nothing new under the sun except ruling power’s term for “jargon.”


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