Remove two dozen seats, lose the fare box, skip most of the usual stops and what you get is Snohomish County's new Swift line, the state's first major bus-rapid-transit route. Community Transit will start the service along Highway 99 at 5 a.m. today. A trip from Everett Station to Aurora Village in Shoreline will take...

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Remove two dozen seats, lose the fare box, skip most of the usual stops and what you get is Snohomish County’s new Swift line, the state’s first major bus-rapid-transit route.

Community Transit will start the service along Highway 99 at 5 a.m. today. Buses will run every 10 minutes. A trip from Everett Station to Aurora Village in Shoreline will take 50 minutes, compared with 70 minutes on a typical local bus.

Bus rapid transit (BRT) is a fancy marketing term to describe the attempt to provide ride quality similar to rail but with far less expense, on routes where rail won’t fit or is unaffordable.

Swift riders will pay street side before they board the buses, which sometimes will run in their own traffic lanes and have three doors to speed passenger movement. The buses, with a bird logo, are meant to attract people who wouldn’t consider a routine bus line.

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King County Metro Transit plans to start its own bus rapid transit in June with the A line, linking Tukwila, SeaTac and Federal Way on Highway 99 south of Seattle. It will extend the reach of the new Sound Transit light-rail line.

Future BRT lines in King County will reach the Aurora Avenue, West Seattle, Ballard and Redmond/Overlake/Bellevue corridors as well as Burien to Renton.

At least 19 U.S. cities have built major BRT lines. More than 100 metro areas are planning or building new systems, said Alasdair Cain, a researcher at the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute.

“In the future, it’s going to show its potential,” said Scott Rutherford, a University of Washington transportation engineering professor.

“If you want to see BRT, you’ve got to go to other countries. Here, we compare ‘BRT light’ to light rail. One costs $17 billion, the other costs $7 million. It’s just not fair to compare them.”

Eugene, Ore., operates the four-mile Emerald Express in special bus lanes. Vancouver, B.C., supplements its SkyTrain with two BRT routes (one serving a university), and a third route was replaced by a new south-end rail line in September.

The international model is Curitiba, Brazil, where buses daily carry 1.3 million riders.

Busy corridor

Snohomish County’s Highway 99 strip is rather forbidding to pedestrians, but thousands of people live in apartments and houses a few blocks away, or go to shops, offices or Stevens Hospital near the Swift stops.

The proximity makes Swift service distinct from commuter buses and future light-rail routes that stop at freeway park-and-ride lots, where people must drive to use transit, says Community Transit Chairman Carlton “Skip” Gipson.

Swift will make only 12 stops on a 17-mile trip. Equipment on the buses will keep a traffic light green a few seconds longer if a bus is approaching.

Passengers will pay at the roadside stop before they get onto the bus, instead of fumbling for change onboard. Each station has ORCA fare-card readers and ticket kiosks similar to Seattle’s parking pay stations.

Buses are supposed to stop only 10 seconds at each station, compared with one minute for the local route.

Speed is such a priority that Swift drivers are trained to bypass someone running to a bus stop or jousting with a ticket machine.

“If the bus pulls up, the bus isn’t going to wait for you. Swift is a little bit different. It’s not trying to be rude, it’s trying to be swift,” said spokesman Martin Munguia.

Riders can board at any of three doors. Drivers won’t check for payment, leaving that to roving transit inspectors, who can issue $124 citations for fare dodging.

Inside bike racks

Bicycle racks are inside the rear door, saving the seconds it takes to cinch a bike onto the front-mounted rack of a normal bus. Wheelchair loading is quick, too — chairs require only their own brakes to be secure.

Swift riders will be surprised to see only 34 seats and nine others that fold down. This allows more standing room, as on a subway. The bus can hold 100 people, and at peak times, more people will stand (holding on to straps or posts) than sit. Because of large state and federal grants, Community Transit and Everett Transit have enough money for the first three years so that they didn’t need to decimate other bus lines, officials say.

Trips were reduced on local Route 101 along Highway 99, and Route 100 into Everett was dropped.

“Swift will more than make up for that,” Munguia said.

Like rail, the new Swift service is supposed to make transit more popular.

Nationally, new bus-rapid-transit lines tend to create a 10 to 20 percent gain in ridership, compared with conventional buses on the same routes, said Kari Watkins, a UW doctoral student and BRT specialist.

Community Transit forecasts a 25 percent gain on Highway 99, where 4,500 already take local buses.

“They could have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to get a better service out there, but given the money that Community Transit did spend, they’ve done a fantastic job,” said Watkins. Startup costs are $29.5 million to build the stops and buy 15 buses, plus $5 million a year for operations.

A weakness of Swift is that at some intersections, the three-lane highway narrows to two, forcing buses to merge. Only seven miles of the 17-mile route have transit lanes.

Another shortcoming is that riders cannot yet use a mobile phone to find out how close the next bus is, said Watkins, co-inventor of the One Bus Away service, used in Seattle. Community Transit plans to add GPS-based bus data in 2011.

Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center, calls Swift “a little on the light side” but the right choice for Snohomish County. He said a big question is whether a better bus can inspire developer investments — as in the Othello area in Seattle and as expected at the Eastside’s Bel-Red future light-rail station — to bring more riders to the transit corridor.

There are no plans for additional Swift routes, but the potential exists for a line someday on Highway 9, serving Snohomish and Lake Stevens, said Gipson. At $2 million a mile, the capital costs are much lower than rail.

Voters last fall approved three suburban light-rail extensions, including one to Lynnwood, that cost more than $200 million a mile, to open in 2023.

Unlike Portland, which built 52 miles of train lines at relatively low cost, Seattle is supplementing light rail with RapidRide bus lines so areas can enjoy better transit where light rail isn’t on the horizon.

William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, doesn’t see the rail-bus question as a rivalry.

Increasingly, BRT is being applied to specific niches, he said — such as in Los Angeles, along major arterials that don’t have room for trains.

Some midsized communities don’t need rail but are taking the next step from local bus to BRT, he said.

Millar, who has visited the Swift route, predicts economic growth in Snohomish County and an increase in short trips between Swift destinations, similar to what he noticed while running a BRT line in Pittsburgh.

“As time goes by,” he said, “people will discover they can take trips they didn’t believe were easy to take.”

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com