Monday is the big test for King County Metro Transit, as tens of thousands of passengers will experience changes ranging from a stop moving a couple of blocks to having their routes replaced or eliminated.
Bus drivers call it a shake-up.
Three times a year, King County Metro Transit tinkers with routes and schedules, to add service in the busiest spots, to save money, or to meet demands from elected officials and neighborhoods.
But the maneuvers that started Saturday — and will get their biggest test with Monday’s commute — are the most ambitious since Metro took over the Seattle-area bus network in 1973.
A total 79 routes that provide at least 120,000 trips daily, close to one-third of all bus boardings countywide, are undergoing changes that range from moving a downtown stop two blocks, to replacing or eliminating a whole route.
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Nearly everybody will notice the new pay-on-entry rule now in effect across the county.
That’s no ordinary shake-up, but a full-scale busruption.
“We want to make sure everyone’s prepared. We want people to understand that Monday and Tuesday, service is going to be a little bit slower. Be patient,” said Kevin Desmond, Metro general manager.
Riders are being urged to obtain an ORCA fare card to speed the loading for themselves and the whole system. For most people, it’s quicker to tap the ORCA card, as explained at orcacard.com, against a reader on the bus, than to reach for cash and slip it into a farebox.
It took a financial scare to inspire these changes.
During the Great Recession, county leaders ordered an audit, and formed a regional task force, scraping for cost savings when sales-tax revenues fell short of predictions.
At the same time, leaders reinforced their promise to voters in 2006, to improve six corridors with a more frequent service called RapidRide. Managers looked for niche and low-use routes to cut, with the result that some people will have to walk several blocks to a busier stop, or take two buses instead of one. Decisions were based on a new scoring system based on ridership, housing and job density, race, neighborhood income levels, and geographic reach of the routes.
Metro stayed afloat by dipping into reserves, collecting federal stimulus aid, and raising fares. The $1.75 adult fare in 2008 is now $2.25 off-peak, and the top fare is $3 for peak trips in or out of Seattle. And the County Council enacted a temporary $20 annual car-tab fee, which took effect in May, for two years.
The bottom line is Metro reshuffled the same bus hours, and kept up with growth in wages and materials, in this year’s $643 million operating budget. Countless transit agencies around the country, including in Snohomish and Pierce Counties, have slashed service.
Here are the major changes you’ll encounter:
‘Pay in front, exit in back’
For decades, riders have navigated a confusing set of rules about when to pay: They paid when boarding a bus heading toward downtown Seattle, or when exiting a bus that left the central city, or when entering if the bus traveled crosstown or between suburbs, or not at all for a short trip within the downtown free-ride zone. Except after 7 p.m., when riders paid on entry anywhere.
The new rule is simpler, and used in most cities: Pay when you get on, always.
This method will cause longer loading times in downtown Seattle, and potential bus gridlock at times. Metro predicts delays of two to four minutes through downtown, until people adapt. On a few routes, minutes can be made up at the outer ends. At Northgate Transit Center, the Route 41 arriving from I-5 can release an entire load of people who already paid.
Riders are supposed to exit the back door, if they are physically able. This should mean people boarding won’t have to wait for others to step off first. There might also be fewer people muscling forward through a crowded aisle to reach the exit.
No free rides
The downtown ride-free area was eliminated at 7 p.m. Friday, after supporters held a mock funeral. Some 29,000 trips moved across downtown free each weekday, and those people must now either pay or walk. These include not just the homeless, but tourists, and downtown employees making personal or work trips.
Metro will send bus drivers, called “loaders,” into the Westlake, University Street and International District/Chinatown tunnel stations in the afternoon peak, carrying handheld ORCA card readers so people can tap the card and board buses either in the front or back. This will go on indefinitely, to reduce delays for Sound Transit trains approaching from behind.
A few loaders will also be on the street, at Third Avenue and Pike Street, Third and Union, and Columbia Street at Second Avenue, all common bus chokepoints, for a couple weeks. This should reduce front-door queues to board popular routes, such as the 120 to Delridge and White Center.
Five routes are new, two are being renumbered, and 18 routes are being dropped.
A huge change in Ballard is that Route 18 disappears, to be swallowed by the new, king-size Route 40. It winds from Northgate to Crown Hill, Ballard, South Lake Union, and downtown, crossing the Fremont area where Mayor Mike McGinn would like to build a streetcar.
Metro is dispatching helpers wearing green aprons to Ballard on Monday, and many spots downtown, to help people find the right bus.
The new Route 50, crosstown from Alki to Othello Station, connects to three light-rail stations, while providing short trips within hilly West Seattle and to Sodo.
Arguments persist over discontinued Route 133, a direct trip to the University of Washington from the Myers Way park-and-ride in White Center. Metro told its Route 133 riders to try other buses, but those require a transfer downtown, or a circuitous trip through West Seattle. Three weeks ago, passengers sent petitions requesting that it stay.
Desmond, Metro general manager, seemed to reopen the door in a reply email: “Metro service planners are examining the possibility of reinstating some peak service between Burien, White Center, and the University of Washington at some point next year. The earliest this service could go into effect would be February 2013.”
Some outlying areas are losing buses. For instance, Route 21 frequency is being cut in the Arbor Heights area, while Route 46 to Shilshole will be dropped, so riders will need to walk several blocks to catch other buses.
The West Seattle C Line and Ballard D Line are the third and fourth of six RapidRide routes promised when voters approved a sales-tax increase in 2006.
RapidRide is a form of “bus rapid transit,” spreading across the U.S., in which buses aspire to the reliability and comfort of a train, at a fraction of the cost of building rail systems. Metro’s red-and-yellow buses have three doors for easy boarding, travel mainly in their own lanes, stop less often than local routes, and run as frequently as every 10 minutes.
The Federal Transit Administration says it is providing more than $104 million to Metro, to cover most costs to buy vehicles and build stations for the six RapidRide lines.
Next come the E Line on Aurora Avenue North, and the F Line serving Burien-Southcenter-Renton, in fall 2013. Previously, Metro launched the A Line on International Boulevard South from Federal Way to Tukwila, and the B Line linking Redmond-Overlake-Bellevue.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @mikelindblom.