On July 10, the King County Council formally approved March 2020 service changes for Metro. The service change implements the North Eastside Mobility Project with extensive changes to service in the Kirkland area. The service change had passed unanimously out of the Council’s Mobility & Environment Committee on July 2.
Kirkland’s peak commuter services are mostly unchanged, but nearly every all-day route will see changes. The service change adds five new routes, deletes eight, and changes two others. Nearly 20,000 riders a day are on existing routes affected by the changes.
The network map in this area has seen few changes in two decades. Recent ridership declines on many routes, despite significant growth, suggest a revitalization of the network was overdue. The restructure comes after several earlier efforts fell through. In 2015, Metro developed a plan to restructure service around the opening of UW and Capitol Hill rail stations, but the SR 520 portion of that plan was withdrawn early in the process. In 2017, the expected closure of the Downtown Seattle Transit tunnel (DSTT) to buses prompted another look at SR 520 service. Redmond, perhaps looking to another restructure after Redmond Link opens, balked and the scope was narrowed to include only Kirkland.
The latest effort is a far more thorough rethinking of service within Kirkland than the SR 520 focused efforts. Kirkland transit riders have experienced delays and less reliable service since buses finally left the DSTT in March. Peak hour trips have seen an average travel time increase of 6 minutes inbound and 11 ½ to 15 minutes outbound, with decreased reliability as some trips take much longer than those averages. The recent closure of the Montlake freeway stop has also inconvenienced riders.
The pivotal element of the service change, of course, is the truncation of Metro 255 at University of Washington station. That route is simplified too in its Kirkland operations. Today, Metro operates 255 in three flavors, an every-day service to Brickyard, a Monday-Friday service to Kingsgate, and a peak-only service between Seattle and downtown Kirkland. Buses will depart every 15 minutes all day to 10pm including weekends, with even more frequent operations at peak.
New route 250 stitches together elements of Metro 234, 235, and 248 to connect Redmond to Bellevue via downtown Kirkland. This is a promising new route which dramatically improves service on the NE 85th corridor in particular, and will likely be the main feeder route to the BRT at NE 85th St in 2024. It will operate at 15 minute headways (30 late evening and weekend), which is a major upgrade in service on Rose Hill and likely to be popular in South Kirkland too for its direct and more frequent access to Redmond. It could become the preferred routing for the future Kirkland-Bellevue-Eastgate RapidRide (Metro and Kirkland are debating the preferred northern terminus).
Other new routes improve or create new services between Kirkland and other neighboring centers with half-hourly service. New route 225 connects Kenmore to Overlake via Totem Lake. New route 230 connects Bothell to Kirkland. New route 231 serves Kirkland-Woodinville riders. The latter two traverse Juanita delivering more frequent service in that area.
With the approval of the Metro changes, Sound Transit is expected to make complementary changes in their service, adding a new ST Express route 544 serving Overlake, South Kirkland and South Lake Union during peak hours. This replaces existing routes 540 (U-District to Kirkland) and 541 (U-District to Overlake).
Detractors of the service change mostly point to the ‘forced’ transfers to reach Seattle or, in some cases, Bellevue. This is offset by greater frequency which was preferred by most commuters in repeated public outreach. The loudest critics are in parts of north Kirkland where a one-seat ride to Seattle becomes three-seat for some commuters. On the other hand, the elimination of milk-run routes like 236 and 238 has gone virtually unnoticed, reflecting both very low ridership and the more direct connections to Woodinville and Bothell on corresponding new routes.
The restructure is bolstered by a large investment in added service hours. 8,700 service hours were added in March 2019 just to accommodate delays as Metro 255 slogs through downtown traffic. With the redirection to UW station, those hours and more can be reinvested into improving the 255 and other routes in Kirkland. The restructure is boosted further by another 11,600 service hours to be added in 2020.
An earlier draft of the proposal would have had new route 225 serve the Finn Hill neighborhood center and Bastyr College (and a hotel development at Saint Edward State Park). Under pressure from the City of Kenmore, the enacted map instead favors service to Inglewood High School. It’s a peculiar decision on the merits, as only a handful of students appear to use current route 234 and the originally proposed routing on Juanita Drive would have attracted more riders. Council member Rod Dembowski characterized the result as “a transit desert from the QFC south to Juanita”. Kirkland Deputy Mayor Jay Arnold reiterated that Kirkland had advocated for service to the neighborhood center and that creating future service in that area remains a Kirkland priority.
A detailed map of the new network is here, and the corresponding current map is here. An easier to read conceptual map that highlights the main features of the restructure and the route frequencies is here. Changes will take effect in March 2020.