The City Council voted yesterday afternoon to kill a controversial private bus pilot program proposed by Mayor Jenny Durkan. The pilot was opposed by unions and transit advocates, who mounted a last-minute advocacy push to defeat the program over the past two weeks.

The bill will also, as Martin reported, reappropriate unused Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) funds for bus service improvements, and provide ORCA cards to Seattle primary and secondary students. Durkan is expected to sign the ordinance.

No private bus service

The original legislation would have allocated funds for a pilot private bus and van program. The council voted 8-0 to include an amendment, authored by Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Teresa Mosqueda, that removed the pilot program from the bill.

The bill was not specific about the form private service would take, but an SDOT document suggests that new routes would take passengers from the North End to Uptown and South Lake Union. The document also indicates that first and last mile programs would have been concentrated around Rainier Valley Link stops and the West Seattle Water Taxi dock.

SDOT’s private bus concept. Credit: City of Seattle.

The pilot was strongly opposed by Metro operators and the Transit Riders Union (TRU.) Michael Shea, the president of the Metro operators’ union, Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 587, spoke against the proposal, as did several other Metro operators. Opponents suggested that the proposal would open the door to privatizing Metro itself.

“ATU believes this is a favoritism program for people who are working in South Lake Union, and this is just another way to have an elitist transportation system,” Shea said.

“If you look at the proposed routes that you are trying to privatize, it doesn’t provide for the public—at least the entire public,” said Philip Blake, a Metro operator and ATU member.

“Only Metro can provide this service. Rather than SDOT doing something that they’ve never done before, ask them to do the things they’re good at—bus lanes, bus signals, ways for buses to move around the city in ways faster than automobiles.”

Mosqueda said that the last mile program might be realized in different form, after a more robust process.

“I’m really interested in working with the community at large, and the folks who are here today, about how the last mile is successful going forward,” Mosqueda said. “We want to make sure that people are getting to these rapid transit lines that we’re building.”

Council staff said that the mayor, Metro, and union representatives were all interested in designing a future first/last mile program in the city.

Service hour shortage and bus improvements

The STBD funds were originally intended to purchase additional service hours within Seattle city limits. Metro is unable, at present, to provide the full amount of service hours the city purchased, mainly because of basing and staffing shortages: bases in and near Seattle are already at capacity. Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer said that Metro is looking into expanding base capacity.

Metro’s Ryerson Base in Sodo. Credit: Sounder Bruce.

The bill also provides for capital improvements on high demand routes. Councilmember Mike O’Brien mentioned bus bulbs, signal priority, and queue jumping as possible expenditures. The bill suggests that as much as $10 million per year could be spent on capital improvements, and an additional $10 million per year could be put towards improvements for future RapidRide lines. The final bill also, as expected, allows the city to spend STBD funds on lines that have a minimum of 65 percent of their stops in Seattle.

Student ORCA cards

At least $10 million of the excess funds will be spent on ORCA cards for students. The STBD money will allow the city to expand the scope of the mayor’s proposed Orca Opportunity program. The exact form that program will take has not been decided, according to Councilmember Rob Johnson, so it could include funds for private school and home school students.

“This bill is not prescriptive,” Johnson said. “This allows the department of transportation to enter into negotiation with King County Metro, SPS and other folks around distribution [of funds.]”

The bill is overwhelmingly positive in its current, vague form, but as with all projects—particularly SDOT projects—planning and implementation will be the true test.

25 Replies to “City Council votes to reject private bus service, reallocate Transportation Benefit District funding”

  1. Simplest first/last mile solution for Alki would be to have the 37 do more than it’s paltry *four* round trips per day, or increase the frequency of the water taxi and connecting shuttle bus.

  2. Serious question, who does the Transit Riders Union represent? Are the people that go to Amazon not transit riders too? Or do only poor transit riders count?

    I actually agree with them about private operators, but comments like this make me think they might have a slightly different ax to grind.

    “ATU believes this is a favoritism program for people who are working in South Lake Union, and this is just another way to have an elitist transportation system,” Shea said.

    Sure. Didn’t metro just make transit significantly cheaper for low income people, bus fares are not enforced on most buses, and we also just gave high school kids free bus passes. All the people in Seattle have mobility needs, but it seems like they are hot on class conflict. There are tons of special cutout for social services, the VA tails, that Common Ground shuttle. This town does a lot. Amazon is a major employer, and if you don’t want people driving, then transit service needs to be provided. But apparently they are rich so they deserve nothing.

    1. That’s exactly right. They have the resources to pay for transit themselves (not to mention they nearly all have an unlimited pass anyways if they bother to ask for it). Those of us further down the totem pole don’t have that. You don’t need a helping hand when you’re already in first place.

      And speaking as someone who used to frequently visit friends working for Amazon in various buildings and isn’t quite able-bodied, It’s extremely easy to use transit to get to and from their locations.

      1. No, Amazon workers don’t have the resources to bring buses that don’t exist to their location in bus lanes that don’t exist. They need political help to do that. They may have the resources to drive private cars, but I was under the impression that an organization called the “Transit Riders’ Union” would not want to relegate people to private cars.

        There may definitely be a question which group should be prioritized, but that’s another matter. If the TRU wants to totally write off Amazon workers (or other people “already in first place”), they should rename themselves the “Disadvantaged Transit Riders’ Union.”

      2. William, they absolutely do have the resources. They are just impatient. Heaven forbid they have to transfer once. There are plenty of ways to get to SLU from these areas, these folks are just entitled and lazy, wanting a one ride trip with no transfers. Get with the picture.

    2. IIRC, TRU supported ST3 (which included the “Amazon” SLU stop which was proposed last minute by SDOT).

    3. Eh, that’s an uncharitable reading. We’ve increased transit service to SLU quite a bit lately–huge boost in 70 service, extending the C to SLU, etc–and I can’t recall the TRU objecting to anyone of that.

      I take their objection to be a special, extra-convenient kind of transit just for SLU. There are lots of people who do 2-seat ride commutes similar to many of the SLU trips this pilot would have served who’d probably enjoy boutique direct commuter service. But we’re carving out a kind of boutique, too-few-riders for regular service, direct commuter routes for people who have higher paying jobs than everyone else.

    4. “bus fares are not enforced on most buses”

      Do you realize how much stress and humiliation it is to ask for a free ride or walk past the farebox day after day, never knowing each time whether you’re driver’s going to hassle you or let you on? It’s not the same thing as a guaranteed free ride.

      1. Well then maybe they should just walk to their destination then, that’s legal and free. Or instead of buying that pack of smokes pay their fare. No ones forcing that “stress and humiliation” on fare evaders.

  3. The bottom line fact is Metro is not able to provide adequate transit service in Seattle and is not going to in the near future, and no amount of part-time unenforced bus lanes or lip service to transit priority will change that. It’s sad that the ATU union and TRU activists derailed an actual solution, but otherwise don’t have anything to offer but stupid scare tactics about the city trying to make “an elitist transportation system.” The union and activists are getting in the way of Seattle providing adequate transit services. At least next year we can vote out most of the current city council, maybe then we can vote in people with the guts to stand up to the unions and activists.

    1. Hey, why doesn’t the city impose a tax on a corporation based on a number of employees to pay for this pilot program? If we only had a name for it– body tax? Foot tax? Maybe they can get volunteers and paid signature gatherers to put it on the ballot. /s

      1. Ha. Good one. I assume you know that Katie Wilson of the TRU had a seat at the Progreesive Revenue Task Force table when said committee developed the head tax proposal that eventually unanimously passed the city council only to run into that buzz kill called “reality.”

        She and the TRU were also against this proposal. You can check their rational if you want, but there does appear to be a common theme developing.

        But don’t get me wrong, I was also against this proposal, but mainly because of its watering down of the criteria for qualifying routes to just 65% Seattle riders. We in Seattle have enough trouble stopping county and state officials from diverting Seattle tax dollars to non-Seattle projects. We don’t need our own city government doing it for them.

    2. But seriously, we don’t have enough buses, trained drivers for regular routes as it is. Metro might even have the money for more drivers and buses, but you actually have to have qualifications/license to drive a bus/incentive to leave your current decent-paying bus driving job.

      1. Wonder if anybody reading this who driver for Metro could give us any information from personal experience as to why it’s so hard to find drivers?

        Also, how much of the deficiency comes from drivers resigning or getting terminated as well as retiring? Transit driving is not for everybody. Full-time means goodbye to what’s generally called a normal life.

        To take people to work at eight, you have to get up at four. And the human body is not programmed for an irregular sleep schedule. After a couple of years full-time, physical condition also classes as pathological. Especially “carpal tunnel”, joint damage and un-loseable weight.

        And while it’s hard to measure, presuming anybody feels like it: When is your work so badly organized, supervised, and managed that your own extra willing effort accurately start to count as points against you in the eyes of your superiors?

        Let’s get a report from the field, I mean the wheel, which now also means the controller.


    3. Playing the class card fits with TRU’s ideology, but there’s lots of reasons to be *very* skeptical of goofy stuff like this. Microtransit experiments like this have a terrible track record.If there’s some special reason to think it would surely work out much better this time, you, Durkan, and other defenders of this plan have been pretty quiet about what it is.

      1. Wonder why nobody’s mentioning taxicabs- which every city with a decent public transit system also has plenty of? Drove cabs several years, but long before we had Lyft or Uber.

        One thing: from what I do see, driving a cab is much more like driving a bus than it is like ride-sharing. And vans seem to combine the worst possibilities of both cabs and buses, contained in an uncomfortable vehicle designed for small freight.

        So if I were Seattle, I’d see what I could arrange with the taxi sector. It really is their work.


    4. I don’t understand why you think it makes more sense for the city to contract with a private company than help Metro purchase more buses and build more bus bases. I totally agree that we should be providing more service to SLU and to the greater downtown area. However, private contractors can’t do anything special that we can’t. A private contractor will have all of the same growing pains that Metro would. They would have to purchase buses, bases, and hire operators, and they would likely have to set up their own coordinators/control center. So they would have to duplicate our existing infrastructure. ATU members and TRU members are afraid of lower wages for privately contracted operators, and operators whose employer’s funds are more dependent on fares. A private contractor may likely be forced to depend more on fare collection than public funds, either leading to higher fares which TRU would dislike or lower wages which ATU would dislike. So in our opinion Seattle should have spent money on helping to expand Metro’s capacity. The elitist system they are concerned about would be one where routes headed to SLU would be more expensive, pricing even more people out of living/working there.

      1. Lazarus, for several years, when I lived in Ballard, my tutoring jobs frequently had me working in Seattle, Shoreline, Kirkland, and Lynnwood on the same day. Didn’t that all count as Seattle money as soon as I spent it there?

        Maybe I also never noticed warnings in any Seattle business’s ads forbidding Lynnwood and Bellevue customers from buying anything. Also, old true caution about walls: Be careful what-all you wall yourself IN with. Seattle rents good example.

        Comments did center on objection to the idea of private van service making up for lack of public buses. But from my reading of today’s comments, what bothers some commenters the most is special treatment for passengers based on having a low income. What a miserable whining gutless lack of initiative!

        Anybody tired of being victimized by the poor and their advocates- Congress gives you a tax-break for joining the that blood-sucking ruling class by giving away, or wastefully spending, enough money to become poor yourself.

        And if you’re young enough to have enjoyed the current union-free environment all your life, thank the deceased labor movement that your forebears could bequeath you actual money for such things as your education. Which neither your credit cards or your lifelong school debt count as.

        But key point of fighting stance: To stand up to an opponent….it’s necessary to pick one bigger than you.

        Mark Dublin

      2. Lower wages mean more people can’t afford housing or healthcare, at a time when these are rising far faster than inflation. Unions are trying to stand up for a living wage. Anti-union forces are trying to drive the wage down to minimum and then eliminate the minimum wage. That’s what we had in the nineteenth century when people worked sixty hours a week for a hovel or SRO — but now the hovels and SROs have been outlawed.

  4. Everybody who is still one of Jenny Durkan’s employers: What’s your “read” on both her and her, her agenda, and her general approach to things like the Connector and First Hill Station? Unhoused people same category, but let’s concentrate of transit.

    Starting with her shifts of attention on Connectors, and private transit, And as the volume of controversy fades, seeming to shift attention to something else without any indication she’s left the subject completely abandoned at all.

    How do we read her own attitude to First Hill Station? I’m not talking about the Seattle. City Council or the Sound Transit Board, but the Mayor herself? Any personal declarations from her? Because I’ve got a very strong feeling that Mayor Durkan could very well decide what happens to, or with, the First Hill Station.

    I also think that for her, “All Deliberate Speed” ranges from ground-breaking closest possible to immediately. To whenever underground tubes and and stations can be built without breaking either basements or budget. And how many years of machine invention will it take to get ourselves Boren /Madison without sign, saw-horse or process-sever in sight.

    So I think supporters’ best approach is to find a leader of our own, get organized. And very privately, like in her office, and publicly, like both a Seattle City Council and an ST Board meeting….

    Let her know we’ve started technical training, and also have at least one mining engineer in our leadership for the duration. And not be shined-on one coat or polish, or one backed-off inch. Nor one syllable of appeasement of flattery.

    Like I said, I doubt I’ve ever seen Mayor Durkan in person, and she doesn’t work for me. What I see in in the news is a Federal Prosecutor who both unfairly locked up some of my neighbors, and was also in ICE’s face at Sea-Tac before the greasy slime dried on Trump’s twitter key. And still is, for ill and for excellent.

    How am I doing?

    Mark Dublin

  5. It’s all about the base right now. And STBD funding is just a drop in the ocean of capital needed to deliver one. So they can get more near-term bang for their buck by contracting with someone else. Also, there are 2.5 years left on the revenue stream, with no guarantee of replacement.

    Lastly, Metro also contracts with private providers. Heck, they’re probably shunting as much service as they can to private contractors in order to open up capacity to fill Seattle’s ravenous appetite. So TRU and the ATU are full of shit on this one.

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