Metro service change moves to October 2nd, STBD changes unveiled

Northgate Link Extension Construction
The future Northgate Link Station under construction, adjacent to the existing Northgate Transit Center (Atomic Taco)

Since Sound Transit has announced that Northgate Link will open on October 2nd, which is a few weeks behind a widely anticipated September 2021 opening, King County Metro has also changed the Northgate bus service restructure to occur on October 2nd as well. When we reported on Metro’s scaled back plans for restructuring service for Northgate Link, there were a lot of disappointments in how the plan was scaled back to match COVID-19 adjusted revenue expectations. But Metro’s plan assumed no contribution from the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD), to establish a baseline for the STBD to build on. Now we have details on how the city will spend its STBD money on bus service.

The plan is broken down into three broad categories: West Seattle, Northgate, and service reductions. West Seattle is getting special attention due to the effects of the sudden closure of the West Seattle Bridge last year, increasing travel time for buses on the lower Spokane Street bridge. The closure of the low bridge to general traffic also increases demand for bus service in the corridor. The Northgate area is going to be transformed by the opening of Northgate Link, so much of the service funded by the STBD is going to be adjusted. Finally, there are reductions to the STBD program that are necessary because of the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Metro wants feedback on transit in Skyway

Metro is considering transit options for this area of Skyway between Rainier Beach and Renton (image: King County Metro)

If you live in or near the Skyway neighborhood, King County Metro is seeking feedback on the future of transit in the area. Some of the services Metro is considering in the area include “van services, on-demand programs, greater access to reduced fares, or infrastructure improvements that will make it safer and easier to travel to transit stops,” and is due by Friday, April 9th, 2021.

Aside from Skyway itself, the study area extends north to Rainier Beach Station, and south to Renton Transit Center and south Renton. Any future transit project in the area will very likely involve connections to Rainier Beach Station or Renton Transit Center.

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Patty Murray is seeking $1.9 billion for Sound Transit

U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington), along with six other senate Democrats, introduced a bill Thursday that would boost funding for Sound Transit as reported by The Seattle Times. The bill would partially offset the financial effect of the COVID-19 pandemic by providing an additional 30% of the cost of the Federal Way and Lynnwood Link extensions, adding up to about $1.9 billion for Sound Transit. Though both projects are on track to open in 2024, the financial boost would have a significant impact on the $11.5 billion affordability gap that is the primary cause of the realignment process that Sound Transit is undergoing. Getting nearly $2 billion from the federal government on its own would put Sound Transit about halfway to the $4 billion “additional capacity” options in its illustrative scenarios for alignment.

Being a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Murray has a lot of influence in this area. Though the standalone bill is unlikely to get 60 votes in the senate, the provisions of this bill could be included in the next budget reconciliation bill as it is budget-related.

Metro’s March 2021 service change makes minor adjustments

RapidRide A Line to FWTC Test Coach
The RapidRide A-Line, which is getting an evening frequency boost (photo: Atomic Taco)

In the final twice-a-year planned service change before the Northgate Link restructure transforms north Seattle bus service this fall, King County Metro is keeping it simple and not making many substantial changes to the bus network. Certain routes are gaining or losing a handful of trips, and bus bay assignments at Auburn Station are changing. There are no routes that are fully suspended making the jump to fully or partially restored, as the long road to recovery is just beginning. The changes take effect on Saturday, March 20, 2021.

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SR 520 bus service when the bridge is closed

Rendering of the future Montlake lid over SR 520 (image: WSDOT)

This weekend, there is a full closure of the SR 520 bridge over Lake Washington. Closures of the bridge in at least one direction is going to be a somewhat common occurrence for the next few years as WSDOT works on their Montlake lid project, which will ultimately improve bus service from the eastside to UW, and get buses out of the general purpose westbound off-ramp that often gets backed up with traffic.

All buses that use the bridge are going to be rerouted from Friday, March 5th at 11:00 p.m. through Monday, March 8th at 5:00 a.m. Routes that are affected include Sound Transit routes 542 and 545, and King County Metro routes 255 and 271. Stops that are missed include the Evergreen Point and Yarrow Point freeway stations, and local stops in Medina that are west of 100th Ave NE. Aside from those missed stops, the reroutes are configured to serve the same stops in the same order that it would normally, just with some significant delay due to the fact that buses have to divert to I-90.

While this configuration is optimal for reducing confusion and making sure service operates as normally as possible, it does lead to some highly inefficient operation for routes that go to the U-District. Routes 255, 271, and 542 westbound detour south to I-90, travel west toward downtown Seattle, but continue back north without stopping in downtown, and take SR 520 eastbound, then continues as normal on Montlake Blvd E. This is particularly awkward for route 255, as last year its southern terminus shifted form downtown to the U-district to expand service. However, when the bridge is closed, the situation is completely different in a couple of ways.

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Sound Transit wants your feedback on the Stride S3 line

Rendering of the future Stride station at 104th Ave NE in Bothell (image: Sound Transit)

Sound Transit has kicked off a new online open house for its future BRT service along SR 522 and NE 145th street, known as the Stride S3 line. The service, which was funded by the 2016 Sound Transit 3 ballot measure, will run from Bothell to the Seattle-Shoreline border along SR 522 and NE 145th street. From here, riders will be able to transfer to Link Light Rail for fast and frequent service to UW and downtown Seattle, and this service will replace Sound Transit Express route 522 when it opens.

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Let’s make The Ave a transit mall

University Way "The Ave"
University Way NE (photo: SDOT)

In between the University of Washington and Interstate 5, there are three parallel local transit corridors: 15th Ave NE, University Way NE, and Roosevelt Way/11th Ave NE (Roosevelt for southbound, 11th for northbound). The former two are just a couple blocks apart and get a large transit volume. 15th Ave NE is decidedly more car-centric, with wider streets, and even a grade-separated pedestrian bridge (unfortunately, obviating any pedestrian crossings in that area). University Way NE, by contrast, is a much more pedestrian-oriented street, with business access right at the sidewalk rather than behind parking lots. For personal vehicles, this corridor offers little in the way of speed, with frequent pedestrian crossings, no passing lanes, and frequently-stopping buses. Aside from access to paid street parking for business access, there is little reason to drive on University Way over the faster 15th Ave NE.

Transit service is split between the corridors, with the much larger share going to 15th Ave NE. University Way gets the 45, 73, 373, and currently suspended route 71 (likely to be replaced by routes 74 and 79 with North Link). 15th Ave NE gets all trolleybus routes (43, 44, 49, 70), plus routes 48, 271, and 542. While both corridors get some combined transit frequency, there are problems with having transit run on parallel corridors that are this close together.

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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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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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Voters reject TriMet expansion in measure 26-218

MAX
TriMet MAX light rail train in Portland

While King County decided not to run a county-wide ballot measure this year to fund King County Metro (though Seattle still running its measure, which cruised to victory), Portland (and the surrounding area) still had its own measure 26-218 on the ballot in 2020. TriMet (which operates in Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties in Oregon), as part of their plans for the SW Corridor, would have constructed light rail from Portland to Tigard and Tualatin. This 11-mile, 13 station extension would have given riders southwest of Portland a more direct ride into downtown Portland than the existing WES commuter rail (which requires a transfer in Beaverton). The measure would have also funded four different bus rapid transit (BRT) projects in the area.

Unfortunately, the measure is losing quite decisively, with (as of Wednesday evening) 56.78% of voters rejecting the measure and 43.22% of voters approving.

Sound Transit shares latest NE 130th St Station designs

Rendering of the station viewed from NE 130th Street over I-5 (courtesy of Sound Transit)

Sound Transit recently started its virtual open house for the NE 130th St infill station, where you can see the latest designs. As part of this open house, there is a survey where you can provide feedback on the proposed designs. In addition to the blue and green station-wide color scheme options, you can weigh in on the available plaza-level seating and bollard options. In addition to the station design, Sound Transit has provided an update the status of the project.

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The suspended all-day routes

Route 246, one of the few all-day routes suspended entirely

We’ve reported extensively on Metro’s darkest day, when the service reductions due to COVID-19 were refined, and the temporary service suspensions seemed less and less temporary. While the bulk of service reductions were applied peak-only service, there are a handful of all-day coverage routes that remain suspended: routes 22, 47, 71, 78, 200, 246, and 249. While many (if not all) of these routes were difficult to use or served areas where ridership is difficult to attract, some of the few people who rely on these routes are getting the shortest end of the stick. While everyone else gets their all-day service back in some form or another (albeit often with dramatic cuts to frequency and/or span of service), these riders have to wait for improved economic conditions to get their service back. Below I will describe these suspended routes, and suggest smarter ways to restore service that may make more sense than merely restoring service to how it was pre-COVID.

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How will Stride BRT serve Bellevue Transit Center?

Bellevue Transit Center, with routes to be replaced by more service on Stride in blue, and routes to be modified (and likely reduced) for Stride in green

As part of ST3, Sound Transit is planning to run three BRT lines (branded as Stride), two of which will run predominantly on I-405. These are going to be line S1, running from Burien to Bellevue, and line S2, running Lynnwood to Bellevue. Both lines are going to meet at Bellevue Transit Center, where transfers can be made from one Stride line to the other, or to Link or other bus service. Details are vague; Sound Transit has only said that the Stride S1 and S2 lines will serve the existing transit center, but has not said which bus bays Stride will serve. Sound Transit has also not said where buses will layover after arriving in Bellevue, and whether there will be additional BRT stops at the layover points.

Currently, ST Express routes 560 and 535 (which will be replaced by Stride when it opens) stop at Bellevue Transit Center immediately after exiting the freeway. But both routes continue beyond the transit center to their respective layover locations, and in both cases, there is a bus stop there (the 535 also serves multiple bus stops near Bellevue Square on the way to its layover stop). When Stride opens, both routes (which run every 30 minutes at best) will be replaced with much more service, with headways at 10 minutes during peak and 15 minutes off-peak. This fact is significant because it will further squeeze the peak capacity of Bellevue Transit center.

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Pierce Transit cuts Sunday frequency to save bus network

While we lament the loss of Seattle’s frequent bus network (which has largely been in place since the opening of University Link in 2016), Pierce Transit is in a much more dire situation. Due to a smaller sales tax base, and the fact that Pierce Transit currently only levies a 0.6% sales tax (with measures to increase the levy in 2011 and 2012 both failing), transit was already sparse before the pandemic. 30-minute headways would be considered “frequent service” in Pierce County, with only routes 1 and 2 (in addition to better-funded Sound Transit service) ever exceeding that, and frequencies rarely better than hourly on weekends. A recent restructure of service had improved matters, and effectively brought 30-minute headways to as many places as possible given the limited resources, without having to reduce weekend service. Additionally, it extended the span of service on most routes to 10 PM. So while frequency of these routes weren’t all that good, it would still probably run late enough to get you home.

Then the pandemic happened, and this threw a wrench in the slowly-improving prospects for a usable transit network in Pierce County. In a series of changes in April and May, Pierce Transit reduced service to match ridership demand. As a result, service would generally run on weekdays would run as often as it would on Saturdays, but would run as late into the evening as it normally does on weekdays (with some exceptions). With Pierce Transit planning for the future, Pierce Transit is faced with pressure to restore service while facing financial troubles in the future. With Pierce Transit’s September 2020 service change schedules out, we see their solution: cut frequency on Sundays to bring back mostly normal service on weekdays and Saturdays.

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Bring back Seattle express routes as Link feeders

Route 157, which serves a unique area, was removed entirely from the September service change after COVID-19 cuts

As reported previously, south King County is seeing a major change in service coming in September. While nearly all of the all-day service from earlier proposals remains intact in the final service change, the proposed peak-hour Seattle express routes have been scaled down drastically. Metro is currently suspending all south King County peak-only express routes except routes 102 and 193 (the latter is presumably preserved to get essential workers to First Hill hospitals). Since Metro is in deep financial trouble due to loss of sales tax revenues, bringing back these peak expresses would be a long and slow process.

Express routes which are mainly there to provide extra capacity during peak likely won’t make sense at all in a post-COVID world, where there will probably be a permanent decline in peak-hour demand. The other express routes either provide the only service to an area (such as route 157), or make faster an otherwise long and cumbersome trip (routes 158/159, 190/192, and others). While Metro’s final September service preserves route 162 in full (replacing suspended routes 158 and 159), it is not bringing back routes 157 and 190 (both of which were originally planned to receive routing adjustments, but keep the same levels of service). While route 190 passengers have a slower alternative by taking the A-Line to Link, route 157 covers some areas that do not have any other service, meaning that residents here are completely cut off from transit entirely unless they drive to a park-and-ride (which we want to discourage).

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Link to run every 15 minutes starting September 19

Seattle, WA: Seattle Link light rail at Rainier Beach station
Link Light Rail at Rainier Beach Station (photo by nabobswims)

Sound Transit recently revealed that as of September 19, 2020, Link Light Rail will run every 15 minutes during the day on weekdays and weekends, and every 8 minutes at peak. Link will still drop down to 30 minute headways in the evenings. This will be the first time since early April that Link will be running frequent service, as well as the first time since early January that Link will be more frequent at peak than Connect 2020 frequencies. While not as frequent as “normal” service, the restoration of frequent service is a welcome development. In recent months, restoration of Link service has been well behind that of Sound Transit and King County metro bus service, with many major corridors getting frequent bus service while Link still lacks frequent service at all (even at peak). This has been particularly bad for Kirkland riders, as back in March, Metro restructured route 255 to end at UW, with the expectation of frequent Link service to pick up riders headed to downtown.

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Send the Woodinville bus to UW, not Bellevue

Sound Transit’s preferred option to serve Woodinville

We recently wrote about Sound Transit’s updated plans for SR 522 Stride. In this update, Sound Transit revealed that it wants to drop plans to run its Stride line to Woodinville at half frequency (and without any BRT infrastructure east of Bothell). Instead, Sound Transit intends to run an ST Express peak-only bus from Woodinville to Bellevue Transit Center every 20 minutes, with a shorter Woodinville to I-405 & SR 522 bus during off-peak hours (also every 20 minutes). While the desire to preserve reliability for the rest of the BRT line is sensible, the proposed solutions here are both expensive and narrowly focused. While excellent for people heading to Bellevue and Bothell, Seattle-bound passengers are faced with a long and circuitous ride on East Link, where they will detour to the farther I-90 bridge. It’s even worse for UW-bound passengers, who have to decide between a long J-shaped trip on I-405 and I-90, or a 3-seat ride on SR 522. Because of this, I propose that Sound Transit and King Country Metro should study a route to UW Station rather than Bellevue.

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Link coronavirus cheat sheet

If you are a (responsible, of course) user of public transportation, there’s a good chance that you’re eagerly awaiting the day that Link will once again run at frequent service levels. In the meantime, you might (perhaps after missing a train one day) have made sure to download the massive PDF Link schedule to your phone to make sure you aren’t left waiting on an platform with other people for up to 30 minutes longer than necessary. In any case, even a less-frequently-running Link Light Rail has a schedule that stretches on and on, despite mostly repeating at 20 and 30 minute intervals. Disappointingly, you won’t find the right schedule on OneBusAway either, so you settle for the endless grid of numbers.

Since an endless grid of numbers is hard to navigate (especially when you’re in a hurry), I’ve put together a more compact schedule. Arrival times are shown for six stops (both termini, and both the start and end of the downtown and Rainier Valley parts of Link). The arrival times of the first and last few trains are shown in detail. In between, it just shows what minute of every hour you need to be there to catch the train (with a +1 to indicate a trip extending into the next hour):

Metro to come back in September with 15% less service

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Due to a dramatic ridership decline as a result of COVID-19, Metro has reduced bus service to match ridership demand. But with revenues cratering, yesterday it announced a permanent 15% service cut compared to pre-pandemic levels for its September service change. This includes a 50% drop in Seattle-funded service, allowing it to continue to the following March service change even though the Transportation Benefit District (TBD) expires in December.

Metro is facing a $200m drop in projected 2020 sales tax collections, and an $80m fall in farebox revenue, largely offset by $243m in CARES act funding. For the period 2020-22, Metro estimates sales tax and fare shortfalls of $465m and $130-150m, respectively.

The restored network will “focus primarily on a network of all-day routes throughout King County, including preserving frequent service on Metro’s busiest routes, while restoring peak service sufficient to meet returning demand to the extent possible given the current financial challenges.” Beyond mid-day service, Metro continues: “While some weekday peak-period commuter routes will be restored, many peak routes will remain suspended in anticipation that long-term commuter ridership demand will take time to recover as many large employers continue having employees telework. Night, evening, and weekend service also will be significantly reduced.”

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Metro’s 2015 restructures, revisited

2 Express Diesel

King County Metro has some challenging times ahead. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to lead to a recession, one which is forecast to be as bad or worse than the great recession of 2008. Funding from the CARES act can help offset losses in the short term, but Metro will almost certainly have to reduce service at some point.

Given these circumstances, it may be helpful to look back at last time Metro looked at implementing service cuts. Metro’s cuts were going to be implemented in four phases from 2014 to 2015, but only the first phase ended up being necessary. Seattle Transit Blog covered these reductions extensively with an overview, as well as detailed analyses of changes in Seattle/North King County and the Eastside. Though most of these reductions did not get implemented, they include a dramatic restructure of bus service (rather than a simple reduction of service across the board) throughout the county. With a reduction of bus service levels on the horizon again, it’s a good time to look back on some of these restructures and see which ones may come back, and what should be changed this time around.

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