On the fringe of Ballard, a green Metro bus cruised up a shallow slope and pulled over to the roadside stop, at 2:30 Thursday afternoon.
Only one person was aboard. The driver.
The King County Metro Transit Route 61 bus continued on 32nd Avenue Northeast, then turned past an elementary school, Puget Sound view homes and a park-and-ride lot for Microsoft’s private Connector employee buses. It reversed course, and after 15 minutes, carried four riders back to the Ballard core. Another northbound 61 bus and a southbound 62 bus plied the route empty, or nearly so.
The 61 and the 62 are two of the 28 bus lines Metro is terminating Saturday.
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Relatively low-ridership routes comprise the first wave in a three-phase service cut planned by Metro, which has several other routes with ridership growing and overflowing. Deeper reductions loom in 2015.
Sales-tax revenue, which covers nearly 60 percent of Metro’s costs, is just now rebounding to 2008 pre-recession levels. For a few years, cash reserves, fare increases and schedule restructures have helped Metro avoid severe cuts while other U.S. transit agencies slashed service. But now, King County Executive Dow Constantine says, money is running out.
This fall, some 151,000 annual service hours will disappear, or 4.3 percent of the whole. After some riders find other buses, Metro expects to lose 2 percent of its ridership or 2.3 million of the 119 million boardings each year.
On the other hand, hundreds of people who’ve relied on underused routes could face longer or more-crowded bus trips.
“I have to do a little more walking,” said Frances Santiago, a senior-care worker who has taken Route 61 four days a week. She plans to change to another bus, which will let her off eight blocks farther from her job.
Her old three-bus commute wended crosstown, from Lake City to Northgate, then to busy Market Street in Ballard, then up to Sunset Hill.
She understands the reason for the service cut; even at 8:30 a.m., there were only a half-dozen passengers riding the 61, she said.
The route averages 200 rides per weekday, Metro says.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has committed $553,000 in city funds to preserve three overnight routes, the 82, 83 and 84 through February 2016, saying late-shift workers lack alternatives.
And if Seattle voters approve a 0.1 percent sales tax and $60 car-tab fee increase this November, the first priority is to restore the eight city routes being cut or reduced now, and prevent 26 additional route cuts or reductions in Seattle next year.
Any surplus tax revenue could go toward relieving crowds on busier lines, or to reach underserved areas.
Metro’s route rankings are based on formal service guidelines that factor ridership, employment and housing clusters, low-income users, ethnic diversity and geographic balance.
County leaders had threatened to cut 550,000 service hours through 2015 after county voters rejected an April tax increase, but they revised the figure to 400,000 hours because of the resurgence in sales taxes and after finding new strategies to reduce or defer spending.
This round of cuts includes:
• Rainier Valley’s 7 Express, which will increase ridership on the regular 7.
• The 306 Express, from downtown to Lake City and Bothell. Commuters instead can use overlapping Route 312 or Sound Transit 522.
• Mercer Island circulator Route 203. Metro recommends the 204.
• Route 47 on the west slope of Capitol Hill, which has been carrying an average of 800 riders a day in a densely populated area. Other transit lines are a few blocks away.
• The meandering Auburn-Federal Way-Seattle Route 152. Passengers must now catch either a Sounder train in Auburn, or use Route 190 at the Star Lake Park & Ride.
• North Bend-Snoqualmie-Seattle Route 209. Riders can change to Route 208 or switch to Snoqualmie Valley Transportation.
Others routes are being curtailed, such as Route 27 to Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood along Lake Washington, for which midday and weekend trips will be eliminated. The closest substitute buses in the Central Area require a steep walk of up to nine blocks.
“Those of us who are close to the lake are going to be isolated,” said Leschi Community Councilmember Diane Snell. That includes seniors, employees at Leschi Market, and some students, she said.
Snell said she will now drive to South Jackson Street, park and then catch a 14 bus to go downtown.
Leschi, along with Madison Park, were once terminals for Seattle’s cable car service.
“We’ve had public transit since 1888, a year before Washington became a state,” said Snell. “It’s 2014, and we’re going backward.”