Most read & commented STB posts of 2020

Sound Transit - Central Link Light Rail
In 2020, Pioneer Square Station got a center platform, sort of. (photo credit: Busologist)

As this tumultuous year comes to a close, it’s time to look back on what the year has brought us. It all started with Connect/2020, which now feels like a distant memory. From there, we saw COVID-19 spread throughout the world and into our communities, with major repercussions on all aspects of life in 2020 and beyond.

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News roundup: testing

M/V Evergreen State waiting off Fauntleroy

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Feds sending relief to local transit agencies


This makes new bill more responsive to the specific budget problems each agency is facing due to COVID. Many regions underfunded in the CARES Act (like New York and Seattle) are now in line to receive proportionally more from this package. Others received aid greater than 75% of their operating costs in the CARES Act, so they would not get additional funds through this bill. Many fall in between, with grants that bring them up to the 75% cap.

Yonah Freemark has more estimates on Twitter:

The bulk of the funds will presumably go to Metro and Sound Transit.

ST suspends fare enforcement another year

Sound Transit Fare Enforcement...

In addition to formally approving lower concession fares for Sounder, last week the Sound Transit board approved a fare enforcement pilot which would replace fare enforcement security contractors with Sound Transit staff “fare ambassadors” with different uniforms and an emphasis on rider education and de-escalation. As part of the pilot, there will be no citations in 2021.

The board is pushing the clearly reluctant CEO, Peter Rogoff, to severely weaken the threat of getting caught. The “Fare Enforcement Action Plan,” a guideline for what the Board expects from staff in 2022, envisions no law enforcement involvement in pure payment disputes, more warnings, and a lower fine.

The big question, of course, is if lax enforcement eventually leads to much less observance by the fare-paying public. Letting the poorest riders keep their $1.50 will not make a real difference in Sound Transit’s finances, but broader indifference to fares (which some activists ultimately want) definitely would.

An alternative to Link station pictograms

As Link’s map expands, the already detailed pictograms will become less legible.

Each Link light rail station has a pictogram as a secondary identifier intended for people with limited English language proficiency. However well intentioned, the pictograms are poorly implemented and lack a logical system underlying their construction.

The last time we wrote about pictograms was five years ago when Sound Transit unveiled the pictograms for U-Link and Northgate Link. With nineteen new Link stations projected to open in 2023 and 2024, it is near time to evaluate whether they are fulfilling their purpose and whether other methods are more accessible to all users.

One alternative is station numbering. Each station is assigned a short code consisting of a symbol representing the line and a number representing the station. Countries like China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Thailand use it for aiding visitors unfamiliar with local names and the non-Latin alphabet.

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News roundup: seamless

King County Metro 2015 New Flyer XT60 4524

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Metro’s new “The Dash”

Yesterday, Metro announced “The Dash“, a new data visualization tool (also available in Spanish with other languages coming soon). Metro continues to lap other agencies in putting data about its service quality out in a timely and attractive format.

If you’re just trying to catch a bus that won’t pass you by due to capacity limits, this data isn’t particularly helpful. Instead, this data might provide a more informed kind of public comment, leveraging data instead of anecdotes, and aware of how other routes are faring in the current environment.

“King County Metro is committed to providing mobility for all, but that does not just mean providing the mobility services themselves, but also the information that will empower the public to use them,” said Terry White, Metro’s general manager. “At Metro, we value transparency and continuous improvement, and recognized the interconnectedness between the two. We’re pleased that The Dash will help move us forward on both of those fronts, and help the public be better informed about our services.”

Updating Metro’s service guidelines

An equity-led service prioritization would put the largest investments in these routes (image: KC Metro, click to enlarge)

Metro’s Service Guidelines, enacted in 2011 and updated in 2016, were intended to depoliticize the allocation of bus service, replacing Council and Executive micromanagement with a set of objective standards distributing Metro resources across the County against consistent metrics. Since last year, Metro and the County have been working on revisions to the guidelines that will increase the emphasis on social equity in those standards.

The proposed changes are complex, but the detail has not obscured from politicians how the revisions will advantage some areas over others, mostly shifting service in the general direction of South King County. While the expected revisions to the Guidelines raise target service levels nearly everywhere, that’s only meaningful with a less constrained budget. Absent more funding, changes in priorities are a nearly zero-sum game. There are substantive concerns about what is being traded off with the increased focus on equity.

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Reforming Link fares for a larger network

Rendering of Link at Kent-Des Moines Station (Sound Transit)

Amidst discussions about the design and compromises of the Link Light Rail system, one aspect that gets relatively little attention is how exactly fares are calculated based on the distance traveled. While important, it is also never an urgent priority and can always be changed down the road (unlike things like the route and station access which are, almost literally, set in stone).

Currently, with the exception of youth/ORCA LIFT fares ($1.50) and senior/disabled fares ($1.00), the cost of a trip on Link is based on a linear formula: $2.25 plus 5¢ per mile, rounded to the nearest 25¢. So a 5 mile trip on Link will cost $2.50, a 10 mile trip $2.75, etc. This formula has been unchanged since Link began service, with the exception of a 25-cent fare increase in 2015 accompanying the introduction of ORCA LIFT fares. Over Link’s history thus far, this formula has generally suited the variety of trips generally taken on Link. Short trips within the city are affordable and on par with bus fares (though recently bus fare increases have outpaced Link). Longer trips have a higher fare better matching a premium service, maxing out at a reasonable $3.25 (coincidentally, the same as ST Express).

However, as light rail expands, the fare for the longest trips will continue to increase at the same 5¢ per mile unless the formula is changed. Federal Way to any DSTT station will cost $3.50, and to UW will cost $3.75. Tacoma to downtown Seattle will cost $4, and $4.25 to UW. From Everett, trips downtown will cost $3.75 to $4. As expected, trips to SeaTac airport will be cheap from the south (maxing out at $3.25 from Tacoma), higher from the east (at $3.75 from downtown Redmond), and pricey from the north ($4.50 from Everett). This will create conditions that may be seen as problematic:

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News roundup: more chatter

Kitsap Transit Foot Ferry Waterman

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Mayor Durkan will step down after one term

Jenny Durkan:

New vaccines put hope on the horizon, but we are in for tough months ahead and an even tougher recovery. 

As mayor approaching the last year of my term, that meant a choice. I can spend the next year campaigning to keep this job or I can focus all my energy on doing the job — a job that will face all the similar difficulties of 2020. 

There was only one right choice for our city: doing the job. Next year will be consequential to our recovery and the trajectory of our city.

Durkan’s term will be no doubt remembered for this summer’s protests — her announcement comes the same day that a federal Judge held the Seattle PD in contempt for its use of tear gas — as well as the fights with City Council over Amazon and the head tax.

From a transit perspective, Durkan secured the renewal of the STBD made a good hire for SDOT. We also saw some wins, like ORCA Opportunity and the Center City Connector (though it was short lived – the CCC is now on pause again)

But the mayor also had a knack for bold chin-stroking pronouncements, like congestion pricing and the 15-minute city, that made for good headlines but were never truly operationalized (though there’s still a year to make good on them!).

The 2021 race should be interesting, to say the least. It seems likely that more than one Seattle City Council member will try for the big chair, along with the usual cast of first-time contenders and maybe even some old names getting back in the ring.

Repair is the right choice

Last month Mayor Durkan decided to repair the West Seattle Bridge instead of replacing it. This is faster and cheaper, but means the next big bridge project in this corridor (except Link construction) will be decades sooner.

I don’t know if the war-on-cars people ever converged to a position on this subject, but this is the right call, for three reasons:

1. It’s a bad time for new capital commitments. We all have opinions on the post-pandemic future of commuting, but any honest person doesn’t know for sure what traffic patterns will be in 2025. It makes sense to wrap up projects that are almost done (like Sound Transit 2), or putter along in the planning phase of far-out stuff (like ST3), but it’s a uniquely bad time to start motion on a giant transportation project. In other words, it’s premature to take a big step back by canceling something, but also unnecessarily risky to add big new commitments.

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Link frequency dropping again

Link Freight

In what is becoming a remarkable year of operational failures, beginning Monday Link peak frequency will drop to 12 minute intervals (from 8 minutes) because they’re running out of operators due to Covid-19. Things will remain the same at off-peak times.

Link operators are provided by Metro. While Link is obviously more critical than most (if not all) bus routes, Metro’s Jeff Switzer explains that “Transit operators in bus operations aren’t directly interchangeable with Link light rail operators, so it’s not as simple as taking a bus driver off the street and putting them in a light rail vehicle.”

Tacoma Link, directly operated by Sound Transit, will run a Sunday schedule both today and December 12th, for similar reasons.

The various online schedule and real-time tools are likely to be inaccurate during this period.

There is no word on when the previous week’s level of service will be restored, which in itself is reduced from what we enjoyed in the before times.

News roundup: snapshot

Kitsap Transit 2005 Gillig Low Floor 779

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Free ORCA through February

Four ORCA cards. Photo by Oran.

Yesterday Metro announced that they are waiving the $5 ORCA fee through February 28th, 2021. The stated reason is to encourage contactless payment during the pandemic.

To avoid hoarding, adults are limited to three cards and youth to one. However, adults can get the cards at ticket vending machines, so I’m not sure how this limit is enforced. From the announcement:

“You can get your free ORCA card by:

  • Calling ORCA Customer Service: 888-988-6722 (ORCA cards typically take 5-7 business days to arrive by mail) – adult cards only
  • Visiting a store that sells ORCA cardsadult cards only
  • Using ORCA ticket vending machinesadult cards only
  • Completing and mailing in this ORCA Card order formadult or youth cards
  • Visiting an ORCA Customer Service Office (NOTE: You may experience extended wait times in person while measures are in place to limit the spread of COVID-19) – adult or youth cards

Please note that this offer is NOT available for cards purchased on Due to technical limitations, cards on the website will continue to be $5.

Agencies have been extremely reluctant to reduce or eliminate the fee, but instead have had free ORCA events every few years. If you’ve been holding out, it’s a good opportunity to finally get a card.