The Seattle Transportation Benefit District, a 6-year levy to fund additional bus service in the city, is approaching middle age. According to the city’s latest annual report, the district is coming to terms with its advancing years in the way most of us do: making incremental improvements, adapting to a changing economic realities, and trying to leave a legacy for the next generation.
Passed in 2014 at the nadir of Metro’s finances as a last-ditch effort to avoid service cuts, the levy is now being used to improve service and fulfill the city’s goal of having 75% of households living within 10-minute or better transit service (which the city defines as an average of 10 minutes between 6am and 7pm). This year, with a labor shortage limiting Metro’s ability to get more vehicles on the road, the Seattle City Council amended the levy to include capital expenditures and subsidized ORCA cards for students.
As of this year, 67% of Seattle households have access to 10-minute transit service, up from 64% last year and 25% at the beginning of the levy. The city had hoped to hit 75% by 2025, now it seems likely it will reach that number several years early.
This year’s big additions are the 41 and the 70, filling in 10-minute service gaps in Northeast Seattle and Eastlake.
Notable remaining gaps include Delridge (The 120/H is now eligible for TBD money due to the city’s relaxation of the rules this year) and Georgetown (the 60 now has 15-minute service, the 124 is eligible for more). West Seattle’s geographically-challenged Admiral neighborhood, a designated urban village, also lacks 10-minute service, as does Magnolia (which has no official urban villages).
Of course, there are goals beyond just hitting the high-ridership routes. The kind of transit network that’s going to get you to give up your car can’t just go downtown during business hours, it needs to go cross-town and operate 24/7. So the city is buying service on evening routes and neighborhood feeders that don’t have the highest ridership but make the overall system more useful to more people. Likewise, the levy adds service in low-income and transit-dependent communities.
Improving any transit service relies on a positive feedback loop: riders generate political support for better service, which in turn creates more riders. Once Metro’s finances improved, the TBD allowed the city and Metro to flood the zone with bus service, leading to increased ridership. Before 2015, many Seattle residents couldn’t even imagine using the bus: it didn’t come often enough and didn’t take them where they wanted to go. That’s not the case anymore.
With TBD approaching the end of its life in 2020-2021, it’s time to start thinking about the next levy, on which the city and the county may partner. Now that capital improvements are back on the table, it’s a good time to think about projects that will make the buses faster.