UPDATE: 11/2/19: Sound Transit’s final (not draft) Service Implementation Plan recommends “temporarily” keeping up to 10 one-way trips of the 541. The analysis still stands.
Because it replaces the Overlake-UW 541, the proposed Sound Transit Route 544 at first glance seem designed for Redmond/Overlake users, albeit one that serves them awkwardly. But I think a better way to conceive of it is as a bus for Eastsiders in general, and Kirkland-Seattle commuters in particular.
When we first wrote about the 544 last month, a few readers gave it a huh? reaction. Commenter asdf2:
In the afternoon commute, I’m guess you’d start on the 544 from SLU. But, even then, getting off at Yarrow Point and transferring to a 542/545 will likely be faster than sitting through the South Kirkland P&R detour.
This bus will only appeal to a small number of riders. If you are in Redmond, it makes sense to take the 545, which serves a bigger part of downtown, and has oodles of options for getting to South Lake Union. If you are at South Kirkland Park and Ride, and headed to South Lake Union, it is great.
That last line is key. The route’s main benefit is the connection to SLU, and the beneficiaries are going to be mostly in Kirkland.
Metro and ST are keen to start sending some buses to the neighborhood in advance of the direct 520-Mercer connection being planned for 2023. Downtown is multipolar, and it’s good in general for agencies to recognize that not all buses must go to the CBD. Unfortunately in the short term the Stewart exit will make this specific route a bit of a bummer, but you can see some appeal of having a 1- or 2-seat ride to SLU from nearly all of Kirkland.
For Overlake riders, especially those not going directly to SLU, the 544 will be a regression from the 541, as the detour to South Kirkland will cost 5-10 minutes in the PM peak. Add to that the fact that the 545 will no longer do the costly afternoon loop into the OTC bus bays and instead only serve the 520 freeway stop, and the meandering 544 is now the only ST service on the east side of 520 in Overlake. So riders will either take it or face a long walk across the freeway to and from the flyer stops on the west side.
For Overlake-UW, it will be possible to transfer to the 542 or 255 at Evergreen Point, and the increased frequency of the 255 (6 minutes at peak) should make that transfer smoother, but still not as good as today’s 541.
So I think you have to think of the 544 as mostly being a peace offering for Kirkland riders who are losing the 540 and (likely) having the 255 truncated at UW. Overlake riders can console themselves with the fact that that the blue line opens in just a few short years, while South Kirkland will be buses only for a couple of decades.