Link Morning Commuters at Westlake. Image by Oran.

From the agencies’ joint press release:

“This agreement sets the stage for continuing Sound Transit’s fruitful partnership with Metro as Link continues to serve more riders,” said Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff. “We appreciate Metro’s readiness to partner with Sound Transit by controlling some costs immediately while pursuing further efficiencies going forward. The professionalism and commitment of Metro’s operators and leadership will continue helping to expand Link’s success in giving riders an alternative to ever-worsening traffic jams.”

A show of public hand-holding and kum-ba-yah singing caps a contentious month between the two agencies, as Sound Transit floated, then rescinded, a proposal to add supplemental bus service from private contractors.

Bus base capacity issue was a big topic during last month’s Sound Transit Rider Experience & Operations Committee meeting. Not only did numerous members of ATU 587 show up to protest the private operator proposal, but Sound Transit’s Brian de Place gave a presentation (starts at about the 1 hour mark here) on ST’s ongoing bus capacity challenges.  The presentation had quite a few interesting details regarding the costs ST pays to various partner agencies.  It also made the obvious but important point that, as congestion worsens, more buses are required to maintain the same headways.

A couple of slides in particular highlight ST’s conundrum (apologies for the quality of the screen caps).  First, there is an acute need for bus capacity in the next couple of years:

After 2025, though, ST Express bus service could drop considerably as Link opens to Lynnwood and Redmond. The board, therefore, is hesitant to make long term commitments:

(Note that these hours are for ST Express bus service only, and don’t include Stride BRT on I-405 and SR-522, both of which will have dedicated funding streams as well as their own maintenance & storage facilities. Total ST bus service hours would remain in the 600k-800k range though 2040.)

Meanwhile, Metro is expanding base capacity as well, and the city of Seattle is buying as much service as it can.  As CEO Rogoff said at the meeting, the region has a huge appetite for bus service and officials need to all work together to meet it, irrespective of what’s in various long-range plans.

The ST board indicated that it’s hoping to get a bigger picture, including the partner agencies, about regional bus needs over the next decade or so in order to help facilitate better planning.  The fundamental issue remains: congestion is worsening and more buses are needed to maintain existing service levels.  The only real way out is through capital spending, either through more base capacity, or, even better, more dedicated right-of-way.

39 Replies to “Sound Transit + Metro Continue Rail Partnership, Bus Plans Still in the Works”

  1. “… congestion is worsening and more buses are needed to maintain existing service levels. The only real way out is through capital spending, either through more base capacity, or, even better, more dedicated right-of-way.”

    … or widespread congestion pricing of freeways, and the biggest urban center.

  2. Between steady or upward need for bus operators, and rapidly-upward need for train conductors, I’m betting both agencies are underestimating future labor costs.

    Those at-grade portions of the Blue Line sure are going to be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

    1. I’ve always complained ST’s surface cost comparisons are incomplete. They don’t include the cost of car/train and ped/train collisions and service interruptions over the lifetime of the line, nor the cost of capping speed and frequency at lower than the train’s specs. The costs are not only monetary but also longer wait times and travel times and lost ridership. The goal should be optimal mobility, meaning everyone can travel when they want and with a robust travel time competitive with driving, consistent with the limitations of a scheduled high-capacity train network. A train can’t come every minute or give you a one-seat ride to everywhere, but the limitations of MLK are not intrinsic to a rapid transit network, they’re artificially imposed by the alignment options.

  3. it is not only traffic congestion (and the Bruce point is valid; the state began discussion tolling of the limited access highways in 2000 with the Blue Ribbon Commission; it has made little progress), but ST, King County, and Seattle have each taken steps to slow transit service. ST has slowed the I-90 pathway by taking the center roadway and the D-2 roadway for East Link construction, King County has slowed CBD service by selling CPS to the Convention Center and ending joint operations prematurely, and Seattle has slowed service on Broadway, Pike, Pine, and 2nd Avenue by restriping the arterials for cyclists (slower an safer). of course, all the agencies have taken positive steps as well. at off peak times, the agencies have buses parked.

  4. Northgate Link comes on line in 2021. East Link comes on line a year after. Yet the big drop in hours isn’t supposed to happen until 2025? It seems to me that the obvious solution is to truncate as soon as possible. Send the 510, 511, 512 and 513 to Northgate. Get rid of the 550 a year later and truncate the 554 in Mercer Island. While you are at it, in couple years, start truncating SR 520 buses at Husky Stadium (as work on the bridge makes getting there a lot easier). The turning point should really be with Northgate Link, not several years later.

    1. Oh, and the plan is to truncate the 522 with Northgate Link (which should also help).

    2. Does that have more to do with moving people on to the the Stride with they open in 2024 and all the service house being moved out of ST Express?

      1. Maybe. But STRide buses are supposed to be faster — which means more trips pet bus. Keep in mind ST Express already operates in the asTRide corridors already.

    3. Truncating the 512 at Northgate is one thing. Truncating all the other routes would require a lot of temporary layover space and they’d have to go through the street bottleneck between the freeway exit and the transit center, which is already so at capacity that the 41 goes down to Banner Way to avoid it.

      1. Huh? The 41 goes on Banner to avoid the freeway itself. It doesn’t make sense to take the earliest on-ramp, and then slog when the freeway is so slow. It also common for the bus to exit the freeway at 45th, then get on the freeway (using the HOV lane of the on-ramp). That is a crazy maneuver, but it is sensible when traffic on the freeway is so bad. That is precisely the time when riders would benefit from a truncation. Of course riders would also benefit from being able to go to more places (Northgate, the UW, Capitol Hill).

        As far as layover space, it really isn’t a problem. You have basically the entire greater Northgate area to work with. Even if you parked in Lake City it would save a huge amount of time. Meanwhile, layover space now used by express buses from Northgate will no longer need it. Feeder buses from the neighborhood (e. g. a truncated 41) will just do a live loop.

      2. Congestion on freeways is the same as congestion around freeway entrances. They both slow a bus down.

    4. East Link is expected in 2023. SR-520 service could be truncated at Link in 2020 with a bit of courage; much more intra Eastside frequency could be provided and the congestion of downtown and I-5 avoided. ST and CT are considering Northgate. Route 522 will be truncated in 2021.

      1. So you’re saying someone wanting to go to UW or even SLU should just take the great circle route? East Link used the wrong bridge; both for construction and routing reasons.

      2. When it comes to truncating more routes at light rail stations, I’m worried that it would completely overload the train capacity at peak hours to the point that people have to wait for the next train that had any room. As it stands, I often find the light rail from UW to Westlake to be absolutely packed at 5pm and can imagine it would be much worse if sr-520 routes are truncated at UW while Northgate link also brings even more riders.

      3. @Bernie — 520 buses would be truncated at UW station. The main reason they don’t do that right now is because of the work on the bridge. Basically it is going to get worse before it gets better. But it will get better way before Redmond has rail service.

        @Jason — They will add more trains and run twice as often as Link expands.

      4. Eastsiders trying to get to DT Seattle are just hosed. East Link taking the center roadway, ST kicking buses out of the tunnel, reduced express service… Seems DT is so popular nobody goes there anymore. Truncating at UW works great if you were trying to go to the U Dist; which for me is more common than DT. But that connection to Link sucks and always will. #1 the Montlake mess is the same animal as Mercer. It never will get “better”. #2 the bus to train connection at Husky Station is horrific… and always will be. When East Link opens it might be better to herd the riders that direction (i.e. the scenic Southern Cross). OTOH, if the HOV/Transit connection to Westlake/SLU works well then I can see a lot of people preferring to stay the course than deal with Montlake.

    5. “It seems to me that the obvious solution is to truncate as soon as possible.”

      That was the original strategy in the ST2 financial plan, right? This very blog covered this topic just a little over three years ago:

      “Yesterday at Sound Transit’s Operations and Administration Committee, we got the beginnings of an answer. Staff presented a report that outlined options for ST Express funding levels going into Sound Transit 3 (ST3). Today, ST Express consumes 754,000 service hours annually in 8 major corridors…

      “Staff outlined 3 service hour options for ST Express in 2024: 490,000, 610,000, and 820,000 service hours. The Sound Transit 2 finance plan, adopted prior to the 2008 vote, assumed that service hours would be pared back to 490,000 annually once Link opens to Lynnwood, Des Moines, and Redmond in 2023, or roughly a 35% cut…

      “For the first time, all options explicitly assume aggressive bus truncation at Link terminals, taking ST Express out of Link-served corridors (and out of Downtown Seattle). Buses would truncate at Lynnwood Station, 145th Street, UW Station, Bellevue Downtown Station, and Kent/Des Moines Station.”

      Now, based on the presentation being reported on in this piece, it appears ST doesn’t intend to hit that reduction to 490,000 hours until like a decade from now, several years after the planned completion of the ST2 Link projects.

      1. My point is that we shouldn’t wait until Lynnwood Link. We should truncate the buses at Northgate when it opens. Then we truncate buses in Bellevue when East Link opens. The timetable would then look a lot different than what they are talking about (which essentially assumes increasing service hours right until Link gets to Lynnwood). Each agency has to decide for itself, but if ST really has a problem with storing the buses, then it would make sense for the agency that is actually running the trains to use them.

        From a rider standpoing, Northgate is a much bigger improvement. Truncating at Northgate means that riders get a fast ride to Northgate, Roosevelt, UW and Capitol Hill. Truncating at Lynnwood means riders get the stations north of there, which are far less desirable locations. It is always a trade-off. Riders who are heading downtown may be worse off (if they get lucky, and traffic isn’t a big problem that day). But riders heading to other locations come out way ahead. Northgate Link is when we add those other locations, not Lynnwood Link.

      2. @Ross B. Oh I understood your point and I tend to agree with the express bus truncation strategy for which you’re advocating. My point was essentially that the plan that ST is considering now actually delays the process even longer than the previous plan discussed just three years ago. I wasn’t suggesting at all that I agree with waiting until after Lynnwood Link and Federal Way Link are completed in 2024 to begin this reduction in ST Express service hours/buses.

      3. The only way full truncation (e.g. including the peak-hour expresses) at Northgate would work would be to kludge up a bus-only diagonal connection to 107th and Corliss, close northbound Corliss between 107th and the loop merge, add a light at 107th and Meridian and have the buses go around the horn to 92nd. First NE would probably have to be bus-only northbound from 92nd to 95th and no parking on the east side north of there for a bus lane during those hours as well.

        If the City could put up with that for three years, it would make sense to spend a few million on such a project. However, Snohomish County riders might object to losing the fast run on the express lanes.

      4. Oh, and forbid right turns from Corliss southbound during those times. This would make 107th almost a busway but not embargo local traffic from the small neighborhood to the south that turning north at Meridian. There’s no need for cars entering Corliss southbound between 107th and Northgate Way to turn right. McDonald’s has no exit to Corliss and cars from the large parking lot for the office buildings can exit from the Meridian side of the lot.

        This could be a big winner. Yes, it means that southbound buses would probably require five minutes from the freeway exit to the stops at Northgate T/C. But it would be a reliable five minutes whereas following the loop around might take only two on a minor holiday but eight to ten on a regular day.

      5. Lastly, the intersection of 107th and Corliss would need a bus-activated stoplight for to stop southbound traffic for the buses.

      6. Or, as an alternative, how about a temporary “Bailey Bridge” style steel-trestle left-side off-ramp to the 92nd Street Bridge? That would be REALLY fast because it wouldn’t require the buses to exit from the express lanes around 130th! I can’t imagine that such a trestle would cost more than four or five million at the outside, plus whatever it would take to disrupt the north side pedestrian cross-walk.

        That cross-walk would of course be closed for the three year period, at least during peak hours when the expresses run.

      7. Another addendum: or both. The trestle would be used for southbound exit during the AM peak while the “Corliss Crossing” would be used during the evening when the buses have to exit the HOV lanes anyway. But the buses would ALWAYS be headed north on First NE at the station, so they could just stop along the curb and then head back north during those three years. No layover required!

  5. It seems like metro’s inability to build or expand bus bases it a slow moving train wreck.

    We’ve already seen that move seattle levy money that was meant to be spent on more hours from metro has essentially been wasted because they simply can’t expand the fleet. Instead it gets reallocated for random purposes.

    Now it’s having an impact on ST as well.

    What is going on at Metro? They should have had a plan to expand their bus bays years since at least 2015, but they are still fiddling around.

    1. What’s going on is a yo-yo of service cuts and increases with the tax-cutting initiatives in the early 2000s and the recession in 2008. Metro cut a quarter of its service in 2014 and laid off its long-term planning staff, then the economy suddenly reversed rapidly and Seattle began asking for more and more service hours that it had never asked for before. Metro ran out of base capacity and is siting a new one but it won’t open for several years.

  6. or, even better, more dedicated right-of-way”

    This is the answer, but obviously the politics are extremely difficult. More bus-on-shoulder? Bus-on-shoulder with a higher speed differential allowed?

    I-90, I-405, and I-5 cannot be tolled without the addition of physical capacity, so using what’s there more effectively is the only real solution. Three-plus in the HOV lanes between Lynnwood and Federal Way?

  7. I thought the promise of Link was that bus hours were to be reinvested in more frequency and expanded coverage. Don’t these numbers suggest that instead link will be used reduce bus service hours?

    1. Sound Transit Express is allowed only between “regional centers”. So, when Link comes to a corridor, the buses must cease. ST can have buses that overlap part of a Link Route, so long as the remainder of the route serves a separate market. This is in the enabling legislation.

      Now when CT and Metro truncate service at a Link station they can reinvest the hours in more service. They are not constrained from doing so by anything except budgets and service allocation rules.

      1. “So, when Link comes to a corridor, the buses must cease.”

        I don’t think that’s correct. The initial enabling legislation, as confirmed by the Washington State Supreme Court in Sane Transit v. Sound Transit (2004), was Resolution 75, which was the RTA’s adoption of the Prop 1 ballot measure for the agency’s 10-year Sound Move Plan. (That plan itself was adopted by the agency previously in Resolution 73.)

        When it comes to the agency’s express buses, this is all that Resolution 75 has to say specifically about this mode (in section 1[b]):

        “b) High-occupancy-vehicle expressway with regional express buses. The RTA shall plan, develop and provide for the operation of regional express bus routes, linking urban and suburban centers, operating primarily in the existing and in an expanded high-occupancy- vehicle (HOV) lane system. The HOV expressway will be developed through a partnership between the RTA and the state Department of Transportation. The RTA will fund special access ramps to make it easier for transit and carpools to reach and use the HOV expressways.”

        I think what you’re thinking about is the language contained in the actual ten-year plan, which as I stated previously was incorporated into and eventually adopted by the agency’s board with the passage of Resolution 73. The relevant section reads in part:

        “Regional express bus services

        “Regional express bus services are high-speed routes that operate in both directions throughout the day. These routes would operate primarily on existing, heavily traveled, state and federal Interstate highway corridors using HOV lanes and major arterials with necessary improvements to maintain travel speeds and reliability consistent with Sound Move. These corridors would provide substantially higher passenger capacity, speed and service frequency than existing service. The routes would be provided in corridors without rail service, or in corridors where rail is planned (to help build a strong transit market before the rail line is in place).

        “When the rail system is extended along corridors served by regional bus, the bus route may be eliminated to avoid duplicating service.”

        Notice the use of the word “may” here.
        The rest of this section is rather interesting in retrospect:

        “Regional express bus route characteristics:
        • serves a major travel corridor directly
        • operates all day, every day
        • runs frequently, generally with 15 minute, two-way service
        • operates at reasonably high speeds,
        generally averaging 18 to 20 m.p.h. (with stops), using HOV lanes and other systems giving priority to transit such as signal preemption when available
        • connects two or more of the designated VISION 2020 urban centers
        • crosses city or county boundaries, and carries a significant portion of passengers traveling between jurisdictions
        • provides connections to commuter rail, light rail, ferries, other regional express buses, and local service networks.

        “By providing a link between the regional rail system and local bus service, the regional express bus system will play a key role in helping develop and enhance both regional and local transit markets and providing connections to and between urban and regional activity centers.”

      2. “runs frequently, generally with 15 minute, two-way service. operates at reasonably high speeds,”

        If only. The 550 is still 30 minutes Sunday, the 512 Saturday, and the 522 off-peak.

      3. @MikeOrr Ikr. I found several of those listed characteristics to be rather “quaint” in retrospect.

      4. Tlsgwm, that must be what I read. Thank you.

        I recognize that peak hour overlays from all over the region will be required, even after ST3 and even from Sound Transit. Link simply won’t have the capacity to carry everyone commuting to downtown Seattle from the other sub-areas.

        I would be VERY surprised, though, if the 574 still runs when Link gets to Tacoma, or the 594 either for that matter, though it would certainly be faster mid-day to Seattle than the train would be. Well, most days anyway.

    2. The truth is you have to increase bus service for Link to work. You need to attract a lot of new riders to make the increased capacity pay off. And since the tracks cover a very limited service area you have to get all these new riders to the train with increased bus service.

      1. It depends on how much the hours freed up by Link expansion address the need for feeders. In some areas it may cover all of it, while in other areas you may still need a significant increase in hours. It also depends on the characteristics of the Link line, the distance from neighboring centers, and the shape of the area. The north end has it made because Link can reach Lynnwood in 30 minutes and Everett in 60 minutes, the same as ST Express’s average, the area is narrow (in Shoreline and west of Mill Creek), and a significant part of the demand is between Snohomish and north Seattle (shorter than to downtown).

        The south end is the opposite in almost every way. If you put Lynnwood and Everett in the south end, Lynnwood would be north Kent, and Everett would be just south of Federal Way. So the distances are longer, Link is slower, and the area is so wide that Link doesn’t really serve Kent or Renton so other things must.

      2. And there’s no U-District, Northgate, or Ballard between Kent and downtown, only Southcenter; the rest is industrial.

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