The last time Metro has ran a “normal” level of service was March 22, 2020. Beginning March 23rd, King County Metro started operating reduced levels of service (not to be confused with reduced capacity, which Metro recently ended). These initial reductions, made with little process and planning, were adjusted over the next several months to match ridership and service needs. While the presence of financial trouble for Metro was foreseeable from the beginning, it was the service change of September 2020 (which we called Metro’s darkest day) when the focus of the reductions really shifted from lower ridership to lower revenues, and that is what drives the level of service to this day.
At the middle of 2020, Metro was pessimistic about the future, and was convinced that yet more service reductions would need to happen in 2021 and 2022, making an already bleak future for transit in the region even worse. Fortunately however, revenues have picked back up faster than expected, with additional resources provided by the American Rescue Plan. As a result, Metro has been slowly increasing service levels in 2021, and will provide a larger increase in service levels starting with the October 2nd, 2021 service change. These were covered in a recent King County Council Regional Transit Committee meeting, in which there was a presentation with an overview of the restored service (with a follow-up meeting planned for July 21st, to discuss further restorations in 2022). And in good news for those who have been patiently waiting for fully suspended service to return, this includes bringing back 22 of the 40 fully suspend routes (not including custom and school routes).
On King County Metro, starting today, transit capacity is restored to 100%. Pierce Transit, Community Transit, Everett Transit, Kitsap Transit, and Washington State Ferries have restored capacity a few days earlier on July 1. For Sound Transit Link Light Rail and ST Express routes operated by Metro, capacity is restored today, and other ST service (including Tacoma Link and Sounder) restored full capacity on July 1st. This change came quickly after governor Jay Inslee formally reopened the state on June 30th as planned, lifting most state-wide restrictions (though not affecting public transportation). Though a welcome change, this does not affect the mask mandate. Masks are still required to be worn on all public transportation services.
Tacoma Link light rail is expanding to the Stadium district and Hilltop. While the new stations don’t open until next year, work is well underway expanding what is now a 1.5-mile line connecting the Tacoma Dome to downtown. To support this expanded future service, Tacoma Link will be closed from June 21 to 29 to connect the existing line to the new, larger operation and maintenance facility.
One feature of some of King County Metro’s paper schedules is the inclusion of connections to downtown Seattle as part of the timetable. It is also available on the PDF versions of the schedules, which is the same as the paper ones. This is done on certain routes where a transfer to downtown Seattle is common. Here is an example:
While this example makes it painfully obvious that some connections just don’t work very well (such as the 29 minute wait coming from Seattle on the last trip), the fact that this is included does make it easier to use for someone who wants to get to Seattle. They don’t need to open up two different schedules to find how their trip will go; they just need this one. What if King County Metro did something similar for connections to Link?
Community Transit has put out a set of options for its upcoming Lynnwood Pilot, with the aim of improving mobility around popular destinations in Lynnwood. The options include two microtransit routes, and a community van program. Community Transit is seeking feedback on the options with a survey, open until June 18th.
With the Sound Transit 3 program realignment continuing to evolve and adjust to new revenue projections, Sound Transit is evolving its realignment scenarios. Now is the time to get serious about prioritizing projects. I believe that Sound Transit’s Stride BRT lines are strong candidates for prioritization, and should be completed as soon as possible.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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.