Prior to the pandemic, I-90 was a major transit commuting corridor, composed of overlapping Metro and Sound Transit routes with an array of different service patterns. The convergence of these routes at both Eastgate and Mercer Island often meant sub-5 minute headways and crush-loaded buses in the peak.
The post-pandemic landscape is far grimmer: the 212 (formerly the workhorse of Eastgate-Seattle peak service) has been curtailed dramatically with only three buses an hour in the peak, the 214, 216, and 217 are due to be discontinued next month, and the 554 runtime is often bogged down by its routing via Rainier. With sudden trip cancellations fueled by the ongoing driver and mechanic shortage added on top, I-90 transit service is a shell of its former self.
As I’ve previous written, it’s reasonable to expect that in a post-COVID world, transit systems should adapt to a more all-day frequency-based paradigm. This necessarily entails a non-neglible reduction in peak-only commuter routes, which are expensive to operate with long deadheads between bases and route termini.
However, hacking away at unproductive service is not a viable long-term solution. For the I-90 corridor, service reductions can present an opportunity for service streamlining and strengthening frequency where it is warranted.
Idea 1: Eliminate the 212 and reinvest the hours into the 554
As much as it would pain me to eliminate the bus route of my early career, the 212 is no longer a viable commuter route. I suspect riders would appreciate more frequent service, even if it requires a slightly longer trip. In theory, the 212’s hours could then be shifted to bolster the 554 (with Metro reimbursing Sound Transit for those hours).
Although this would eliminate the circuitous routing from the freeway station down to the lower bays of the park-and-ride, it might incur a transfer penalty for anyone connecting from other Eastgate-bound routes. Scheduling optimizations and usage of the stop on the 142nd Pl SE bridge as a connecting point could help mitigate those penalties.
Another way to implement this is to rebrand the 212 as an Eastgate-Seattle express variant of the 554. However, its service pattern is different enough from the 554 (which stops at Mercer Island and Rainier Avenue) that either keeping them as separate routes or folding the 212 into the 554 pattern makes more sense. The latter option affords more opportunities for streamlining, as I’ll touch on next.
Idea 2: Streamline Rainier Avenue routing or eliminate it for select trips
When the Rainier Avenue freeway station was lost to East Link construction, Sound Transit elected to pursue divergent routing between the 550 and 554, where the former would run the entire remainder of I-90 to get to 4th & Jackson but the latter would serve Rainier Avenue. This has effectively put the 554 at a “competitive disadvantage,” where Mercer Island riders often opt for the 550 because of its speedier routing even when both routes show up at the same time.
Since Sound Transit is a regional express service, it seems to me that delegating this kind of coverage service to Metro is entirely appropriate without infringing on its Title VI obligations. This is much easier said than done in the real world, however, so a more feasible option is to eliminate the Rainier deviation for select trips, particularly in the peak. This would create at least some parity with the 550 and claw back some runtime.
A second alternative is to preserve the Rainier Avenue routing but shift the eastbound route to take Dearborn instead of Jackson, as is the case with the westbound routing. Although this eliminates the stop at Maynard, which does not currently have a companion westbound stop, it avoids congestion on Jackson, which can siphon off runtime in the PM peak. SDOT-funded queue jumps and signal prioritization in that stretch can further help aid reliability.
Right-sizing service hours to reduce commuter peak-only routes doesn’t mean throwing those riders under the bus. Strengthening core service in key corridors, like I-90, can eliminate redundancies and help pave the way for future rail.