While the new RapidRide bus mostly lives up to its name in West Seattle, passengers on its sister route to Ballard are routinely stuck in traffic.

Share story

While the new RapidRide bus mostly lives up to its name in West Seattle, passengers on its sister route to Ballard are routinely stuck in traffic.

The service to Ballard, called the D Line, is delayed 10 to 15 minutes by late-afternoon car congestion leaving Belltown and winding through the crowded Uptown neighborhood, near Seattle Center.

That bottleneck is aggravated by traffic signals that haven’t yet been re-timed by King County Metro Transit and the city of Seattle, to give the buses a longer or quicker green light. Metro acknowledges the D Line is just one minute faster than the local bus it replaced Sept. 29; the advantage is supposed to be six to eight minutes.

Transit managers hope to make gains by early 2013 after signal and road-lane changes are finished.

“We have a ways to go based on our early experience, but it is still too early to know whether the projection will be achieved,” said Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer.

Performance matters beyond Ballard because Metro next year will launch RapidRide lines to Shoreline along Aurora Avenue North, and from Burien to Southcenter and Renton.

Metro previously opened lines along International Boulevard South and serving Redmond, Overlake and Bellevue. The International Boulevard line is attracting 50 percent more riders than the local line it replaced, Metro said.

RapidRide was the jewel in the voter-approved “Transit Now” county sales-tax increase of 2006. Startup costs for buses and street work were $69 million, about two-thirds federal money, just for the C and D lines.

It’s a form of “bus rapid transit,” meaning service that approaches the convenience of a train. Transit wonks call RapidRide a “light BRT” because buses use arterial streets instead of cruising unfettered in separate corridors.

The West Seattle C Line, though, enjoys a two-mile bus lane on northbound Highway 99, plus another mile of bypass at the West Seattle Bridge. Buses reach downtown from The Junction in 17 to 18 minutes, a noticeable improvement. Complaints from there are mostly about crowding or service cuts to outlying neighborhoods.

Metro doesn’t publish a RapidRide schedule — doing so might be folly anyway, given Seattle’s unstable traffic. An internal schedule carried by drivers lists exact times only for the first few stops, and “estimated times” down the line.

“This is no good,” said Chris Berg, squeezed in the back of a D Line bus carrying 100 people on a rainy November evening. “There’s no schedule. They’re never late. They’re never on time. It’s just whenever they show up.”

RapidRide — with fewer stops than a normal bus — is supposed to run every seven to 10 minutes during peak times, and every 15 minutes off peak, in general. But delays sometimes have the buses running 20 minutes apart or more.

General Manager Kevin Desmond said that with the D Line, it was tougher than expected to solve technical issues, such as reprogramming traffic-signal cabinets or coordinating utility-work schedules. High-level managers in Metro and Seattle are working to prioritize road improvements soon on future lines, he said. So why did Metro launch the D Line prematurely?

Delaying it would also have delayed the West Seattle route, because they use the same buses.

A 2012 date was promised to voters in 2006. Metro publicly advertised and planned the D Line’s debut this spring, when leaders were still optimistic.

“I would not want to launch RapidRide again without everything done,” Desmond said.

Finish work

An estimated 8,300 people a day use the Ballard D Line, about as expected.

An additional 6,200 take RapidRide in West Seattle — far beyond the 3,500 Metro projected in 2009, due to population growth, people avoiding car trips through the Highway 99 construction zone, and cuts to other routes.

Final touches remain to be done:

• Metro will install ORCA fare-card readers in the next month at two stops on First Avenue North and the busy southbound stop near Ballard High School. ORCA at southbound Northwest Market Street is due in 2014, when a permanent station is built outside a huge apartment complex under construction.

• The city wants to mark a bus-only lane on Broad Street early next year, between Third and First avenues leaving Belltown, said Bill Bryant, transit program manager for the Seattle Department of Transportation. That will require some loss of parking or general-lane space, he said.

• The 14 signal projects left over as of mid-November, mostly in Uptown, should be finished in the next few weeks, Metro says.

• Desmond said he wants to start publishing schedule details for off-peak RapidRide trips, in response to rider requests in West Seattle.

• ORCA readers won’t be installed downtown until 2014. Desmond said Metro is saving money by coordinating with an upcoming Seattle police fiber-optics project on Third Avenue.

Fare cards are a big issue because a key feature of RapidRide is to load buses quickly using all three doors. On a morning trip Tuesday, about 35 people at West Seattle Junction who used sidewalk ORCA boarded in 12 seconds — then the same bus needed almost 80 seconds to load a similar group through the front door at Third and Pine, before continuing north on the D Line.

An evening bus to Ballard was so packed that commuter Joe Koenen reached in the front door, tapped his fare card, and scurried in through a back door with the driver’s OK.

He suggested “a few more buses” to ease the pressure. Metro scheduler Jon Bez replies the D doesn’t need more buses but needs to work on better bus spacing, so the buses carry roughly equal numbers of people.

That’s tough downtown when drivers have to pause to answer a question, help a disabled person get onboard, or wait for everyone to trudge through the front door.

RapidRide elements such as signal priority, peak-time parking bans and protruding curbs (so buses don’t have to pull to the roadside then merge back in) are coming soon to Route 120 on Delridge Way Southwest, and they’re recommended citywide in Seattle’s transit master plan.

Frequent rides

Despite the turbulence, it’s easy to find riders who are happy, or at least stoic, about the change.

Chris Boswell, a mathematician on a morning trip home, said he lost his local route, so he hops a D bus downtown, then walks eight blocks up Queen Anne Hill. “This comes every few minutes, so I don’t have to wait,” he said.

Swedish Medical Center, which has 143 ORCA pass holders, hasn’t heard a single complaint about service changes there, a good sign, said Karen Kimber, transportation coordinator.

Apartment salespeople mention RapidRide, and Ballard’s abundant bus access in general. Leasing agent Lindy Sheehan of Gallagher Properties, which has 142 units in Ballard, says four tenants recently gave up their cars and one gave up a car before moving in.

But some people are losing time.

Lessa Bak, a restaurant server downtown, said she has to walk eight blocks to the D Line because her former direct route from Ballard to downtown was cut. And when she leaves for her 11 a.m. shift, buses are more infrequent.

“RapidRide is only good during peak times,” Bak said.

Andi Beebe said she understands why Metro cut local service to the spread-out North Beach area. Since then, she walks about a mile.

“I whined a lot after the September shake-up, but then I had to remind myself we have a real robust public-transportation system.”

Metro’s Desmond says a lot of things have gone well — ending the free-ride zone downtown caused less gridlock than he feared, and most people are OK walking to rapid-ride stops that are farther apart than on the old local routes. He acknowledges some people are worse off but says that overall Metro is providing better service for more people.

“I can’t promise we can fix everything, but we will listen,” he said.

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