Work to improve sidewalks and bus stops will shut down trolley wires and dead-end Route 4 service because hybrid-diesel buses are all committed elsewhere, Metro Transit officials say. Affected Central Area residents will lose their direct bus service for eight months.

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In two weeks, Seattle will start to rebuild crumbling 23rd Avenue to make it friendlier for people who walk, bike and use transit.

At the same time, voter-approved Proposition 1, a $60 car-tab fee and sales-tax hike to add bus trips citywide, will start delivering part of the promised service.

But Route 4 — which runs between Queen Anne and the Central Area — will be dead-ended for eight months, at 21st Avenue and Jefferson Street, beginning June 8. Rather than go around 23rd, buses will return downtown.

So why would King County Metro Transit disrupt bus riders in such a high-priority corridor, by severing their bus line?

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Metro faced a dilemma. Route 4 uses electric trolley buses, but it’s unsafe to maneuver the heavy construction equipment and supplies needed for the 23rd Avenue road work beneath live power wires.

The usual answer would be to “dieselize” the route by substituting hybrid buses for the vehicles requiring electric wires, a tactic routinely used around building and utility construction. But the agency says the entire hybrid-diesel fleet is committed elsewhere. In addition, the Metro schedule integrates Route 4 buses with the overlapping Route 3, which the agency argues would also need to switch to diesel vehicles.

“We have no more diesel buses available,” said Kevin Desmond, Metro general manager.

So the service gains elsewhere indirectly handcuff Route 4.

“The big thing is, they’re increasing service throughout the city, but they’re stopping service on this run,” said passenger Jamie Fackler, who has been challenging the decision. “They’re saying it’s short term, but I don’t think eight months is short term.”

Metro said Friday it would have needed 21 hybrid buses to operate routes 3 and 4 at peak times, a huge share of the 40 or so hybrid buses to be deployed citywide in the June service boost.

Compounding Fackler’s frustration, Route 4 was among dozens of routes nominated for cuts last year, until the Metropolitan King County Council set the ax aside as tax revenues rebounded. And throughout mid-2014, the City Council and Mayor Ed Murray hailed the car fee as an elixir to preserve existing service.

Route 4 will continue taking people from Queen Anne Hill to downtown and to First Hill hospitals — but halt just shy of Garfield High School.

The number of affected riders isn’t huge. About 5,000 passengers a day ride Route 4, but only about one-fifth ride the tail segment along 23rd.

“It’s not that there’s no service; it’s that there’s service nearby, and the other service that’s nearby is frequent,” said Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer.

For eight months, King County Metro Transit will shorten Route 4, forcing riders to transfer or walk around the 23rd Avenue construction zone. Source: King County Metro Transit (Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times)
For eight months, King County Metro Transit will shorten Route 4, forcing riders to transfer or walk around the 23rd Avenue construction zone. Source: King County Metro Transit (Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times)

But it’s a sort of lifeline area, passing Washington Middle School, the Douglass-Truth library branch, Lighthouse for the Blind, the Promenade 23 shopping center and the Seattle Central College woodworking shop.

Route 4 cuts will affect Rodney Strander and his fiancée, Antonia Jocon, who is recovering from a stroke she suffered in April. On a 4 p.m. trip last week, Strander rolled her wheelchair onto the bus downtown, and the couple exited near Promenade 23. They were among 11 people riding along 23rd Avenue.

Strander said he’d be OK, walking to the frequent Route 48.

But then he noticed from a detour map that his fiancée will lose the three-way connections between his home off 23rd, her downtown apartment, and her care at Harborview Medical Center.

“There’s not going to be a direct stop for eight months?” Strander said. “Now I’m hot.”

Jocon said the change adds an incentive to rebuild strength in her left arm and leg. Otherwise, she might need to call an Access paratransit van, she said. Sidewalks in the areas are broken, making it difficult to move her wheelchair to another bus line.

“I hope I can already walk, before that happens,” she said.

As they left, a blind woman boarded the bus, riding up on the wheelchair ramp.

Morning commuters often include doctors and nurses, Fackler said.

Alternatives include the Route 8 and 48 buses on Martin Luther King Jr. Way a few blocks east, but the 8 is nicknamed the “The Leight” due to afternoon congestion as it crawls up Denny Way and turns right on Broadway. Neither goes directly downtown, so transfers are needed.

“Going home, that trip adds 25 minutes,” predicted Fackler, who said he might turn to bicycling more often.

Fackler said he didn’t hear about the cutoff until March.

His public-records request turned up an email message by Andrew Glass Hastings, the mayor’s transportation adviser, to Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) colleagues: “Gentlemen, We need to figure this out. Truncating the route as planned during construction is not acceptable at this point. Wish this had been flagged earlier. How can we fix it? AGH.”

But in a high-level meeting a week later, the city was convinced that Metro’s choices “were pretty limited,” said Bill LaBorde, chief policy adviser for SDOT. He emphasized that there’s frequent service nearby, including a planned increase in Route 3 trips.

“That may involve a transfer for eight months, but for most people it’s a pretty seamless transfer,” he said.

By now, new schedules have been printed and driver assignments confirmed for the June change. Metro has recently decided to provide hybrid weekend buses on 23rd Avenue, and says it’s helping people to find van pools.

“For the people who need transit the most, we’ve been trying to work with the community so they understand the options available,” Switzer said, mentioning the customer-service hotline, 206-553-3000.

Nonetheless, a few hundred passengers will have to do what transit riders in Seattle usually do, which is adapt.