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.
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.
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.