Sound Transit’s 2023 service plan shows no signs of labor shortage relief

Sound Transit 2010 MCI D4500 9734P
The promised frequent service to Federal Way never materialized, and is unlikely to in 2023 (photo: Zack Heistand on Flickr)

Sound Transit is planning for service changes in 2023, and has just released its 2023 Service Plan for public comment. This plan outlines the changes to Sound Transit service that is anticipated for 2023. And the outlook is… bleak.

For some background, you may recall that there were significant improvements in transit service planned in Sound Transit’s 2022 Service Plan. As it turns out, none of the changes outlined in the 2022 plan ended up happening except the restoration of S Line service. This is almost singularly due to the labor shortage (with other contributing factors also to blame for the slip of the Hilltop extension of the T-Line into 2023), which has showed no signs of letting up. In its more detailed draft Transit Development Plan, Sound Transit reports that in October 2021, labor shortages have caused a reduction of 5% of ST service operated by King County Metro, 10% of ST service operated by Community Transit, and 20% of service operated by Pierce Transit. Mitigations included a sudden reduction of ST Express service, and the transfer of route 566 from Pierce Transit to King County Metro. With the labor shortage being persistent through today, there has been no perceptible improvement so far, completely blocking the proposed ST Express improvements.

The service plan

The 2023 Service Plan anticipates more of the same, detailing the mitigation efforts made in 2021 and 2022. The plan tempers expectations of any service increases in 2023, noting that the agency will continue to implement two service changes a year. Service increases are not off the table (seeming to refer to the planned 2022 increases), but this won’t happen until staffing levels are sufficient to deliver on current transit service reliably and without cancellations.

The plan goes into detail about routes with current service reduction, in comparison to the service they would have had with sufficient service levels. This includes routes 577/578/590/594. which have the steepest reductions (running every 30 minutes midday and weekends instead of 15). Routes 566 and 592 are also seeing frequency reductions during peak hours (which is the only time they operate), and the 580 is getting unspecified reductions in favor of route 400 (which parallels route 580 in Puyallup). Also, the portion of route 580 from Lakewood to Puyallup (currently “temporarily” suspended) will be eliminated, leaving SR 512 for the exclusive use of cars once again.

No mention of East Link

One notable omission in the service plan is literally anything about East Link. While we already knew that East Link is likely to slip into 2024, the fact that Sound Transit isn’t even tentatively including it in the service plan says a lot about when the agency is anticipating opening the line. To this, I will say that I hope Sound Transit will break the news as soon as it is certain (starting with the official project page), rather than waiting until just a few months before people think it will open. Delaying the announcement will only frustrate riders and voters more, and is less honest to future riders who may be beginning to plan around the start of East Link service.

The service plan is open for public comment until August 9. So if you have feedback, be sure to fill out the survey before then.

East Link Connections process moves into phase 3

Latest proposal has worse coverage, but better frequency

As expected, phase 3 of the East Link Connections restructure proposal is out. It was developed using feedback from phase 2, when the first proposed network was released. In the first network, a clear trend was a dramatic increase in coverage throughout the eastside, with bus service on many corridors that never had any service before. However, a common sentiment in the comments is that Metro is focusing on expanding coverage instead of increasing frequency on core routes. Commenters also wanted to see better weekend and evening frequency.

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Metro needs a more flexible snow network

King County Metro 1996 Gillig Phantom 3447
King County Metro running special snow route 90

In the week between Christmas and New Year, King County Metro activated its emergency snow network (ESN) for only the second time. However, it felt different this time around. In 2019, the situation was widely understood to be an emergency (even prompting Governor Inslee to declare a state of emergency, limiting the hours vehicles could be driven).

This time, there was definitely snow, but it didn’t feel like… an emergency. While there was enough snow to make driving inadvisable, there seemingly wasn’t enough to justify drastic action. Even more confusingly, Metro kept the ESN in effect even when conditions were improving. By the last day of the ESN on January 1, 2022, the snow had cleared enough that many areas of King County had roads clear of snow and ice, and neighboring Pierce Transit was operating with 75% of its routes on regular (non-snow) routes. Even in its blog post about its continuation of the ESN into the new year, Metro points to “ongoing freezing temperatures and difficult road conditions in parts of King County” (emphasis mine). In any other time, difficult road conditions in just parts of the county would result in service in those parts of the county operating on snow routes, not keeping the entire county in the emergency snow network. So, what was different this time, and what can be done about it?

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Pierce Transit reduces bus service due to operator shortages

Pierce Transit 2002 New Flyer C40LF CNG 174
Pierce Transit bus in Tacoma (source: Shane Ramkissoon on Flickr)

Beginning Sunday, November 7th, Pierce Transit will reduce service on some routes, including some PT-operated ST Express routes, due to persistent shortage of bus operators. The hope is that with service reduced to match the level of service that current operators can reliably provide, trip cancellations will be much rarer, and you can be more reasonably sure that scheduled bus service will be delivered. Here are the changes by route:

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Improving East Link connections in Issaquah and Newcastle

With the East Link Connections survey wrapping up Monday, it’s a good time to make suggestions if you haven’t already. The process of restructuring is about tradeoffs, and in any result, there will be both winners and losers. While no plan is perfect, I have two ideas for how I think the plan can be improved to further expand and speed up access to Link in the south and east study areas. One of them is in Newcastle and Renton, around routes 240 and 114, the latter of which is proposed to be deleted. The other is in Issaquah, around routes 215 and 269.

King County Metro 1998-1999 New Flyer D60HF 2399
Route 114, set to be deleted with the opening of East Link (image: Shane Ramkissoon on Flickr)
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East Link restructure in the I-90 corridor and east subarea

Proposed changes in the east and I-90 corridor area (image: Sound Transit). Click to see more detail.

In the East Link restructure online open house, the entire restructure proposal is broken up into five sections: North, Central, South, East, and Seattle. We’ve covered the south subarea previously. The east subarea covers Issaquah, Sammamish, Preston, Snoqualmie, and North Bend, but also throws in Mercer Island as part of the I-90 corridor (but omits Eastgate and Factoria, which are part of the central subarea). I’m also including the Seattle subarea since it includes only one minor change to route 8 in the vicinity of I-90. Like other areas, there are some route reconfigurations, but these changes don’t seem as significant as in other areas, with local service on the main routes 204, 208, and 269 looking largely the same as today. But the changes are nonetheless dramatic, with all service east of Lake Sammamish being extended along I-90 to either Merce Island or Bellevue, and reducing the two-hour headways seen on today’s route 208. So let’s jump in!

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East Link Connections: bus changes in the south subarea

Bus changes proposed for Renton, Newcastle, Factoria, and Eastgate

With the East Link Connections project underway, Sound Transit and Metro have presented their first service proposals as part of the East Link Connections survey. The opening of East Link will be a huge event, and will transform what transit service looks like not just crossing Lake Washington, but how neighboring regions are connected. The south subarea of the East Link Connections study area includes Renton, Newcastle, Factoria, and Eastgate. Though not as significant as in other areas, the changes in this area nonetheless improves transit access overall, with brand new all-day coverage, more direct service to Bellevue College, and consolidation of peak-hour service.

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Sound Transit could make Lakewood to Seattle bus service faster instead of slower

Sound Transit 2012 Gillig BRT 9123P
This bus is set to get slower in 2022 with added stops in Tacoma and SODO (photo: Zack Heistand)

As part of an overall improvement in ST Express service Sound Transit is planning to roll out in 2022, Sound Transit is expanding all-day service from Seattle to Tacoma, improving midday and weekend headways from 30 minutes to 15 minutes. But there are also plans to make changes to peak-only route 592, which runs from DuPont Station to Seattle, with intermediate stops in Lakewood. This route is the only peak-direction service other than Sounder to run from Lakewood to Seattle (route 594 only runs off-peak and in the reverse-peak direction). One important feature of route 592 is its non-stop service from Lakewood to Seattle. Off-peak, people riding to Seattle also need to ride through downtown Tacoma (as both Tacoma and Lakewood are served by route 594 off-peak), but express service to Seattle from SR 512 P&R is a big time saver when it is available. However, Sound Transit is proposing to add additional stops to this route in 2022, slowing it down and making it less of an express bus. And for route 594, Sound Transit is passing up an opportunity to speed up service, something which is made easier with the additional service hours that is likely coming to Tacoma in 2022.

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Sound Transit is considering sacrificing station access to reduce Stride costs

These two bridges connecting Stride stations to local neighborhoods may be cut from the project

Just a week after concluding realignment on a largely positive note, Sound Transit today is again tempted to water down station access for relatively little cost savings. At today’s System Expansion Committee meeting, they revealed that they are considering two changes to Stride stations (one at Tukwila Intl. Blvd. Station, and one at the Brickyard Station) that would permanently cut off local neighborhoods from their stations. If these changes were to be made, local residents would need to need to detour far out of the way toward the nearest street crossing of the freeway, and then come all the way back to the station on the other side. Especially after (rightly) deprioritizing parking in ST3, we need to put a strong emphasis on improving non-motorized station access, and it’s disturbing to see Sound Transit considering such a big step in the wrong direction.

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Via to Transit is expanding

Via to Transit service areas (source: King County Metro)

Via to Transit, which debuted in 2019 as an on-demand Link shuttle to better connect to Link areas where bus service is limited or not available, is getting a major expansion on Tuesday, August 10th, 2021. From 2020 to now, Via to Transit only had three service areas, one for Othello, Rainier Beach, and Tukwila Intl Blvd Link stations (while pervious iterations also had service areas for Mount Baker and Columbia City stations). Passengers from within each service area could request a pickup using the Via to Transit app, and they would be assigned a street corner to wait at. By having passengers wait at areas a few blocks from where they requested a pickup, the software used by drivers could optimally route vans to pick up every waiting passenger efficiently, bringing wait times to 10-15 minutes. Service times ran from the morning to at least midnight daily, except Tukwila, where service was available weekdays only during commute hours. But Tuesday’s expansion will expand service to Renton, introduce multiple destinations in most service areas, and bring all-day, 7 days per week service to Tukwila.

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Sound Transit wraps up realignment

Sound Transit finalized and voted to move forward with the realignment of the Sound Transit 3 program on Thursday. This day marks the end of an almost year-and-a-half long process of planning just how to delay projects so that the program remains affordable, and projects can be delivered.

The realignment hybrid plan, with changes added from today’s amendments. Further delays are in red, and accelerations are in green. Column changes mean changes in tier, except for tier 4 parking delays.
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Metro and Sound Transit propose service increases in 2022

Tacoma passengers heading to Seattle (image: Sound Transit)

With the October 2021 Northgate shakeup of transit service still ahead, agencies are already looking at what changes will be made to service in spring and fall of 2022. King County Metro and Sound Transit both have service increase proposals for 2022, and both take decidedly different approaches.

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Most fully-suspended routes to come back in October

King County Metro has some stickers to peel

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).

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Transit agencies restore full vehicle capacity

Closed seats on King County Metro (Wikimedia)

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.

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Tacoma Link to be closed for 9 days starting June 21

Tacoma Link construction in the Stadium district (image: Sound Transit)

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.

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Improving Metro bus schedules with Link connections

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:

The timetable for route 187 includes connections to routes 577 and 578 (image: King County Metro)

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?

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Community Transit considering microtransit in Lynnwood

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.

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