Metro can’t add buses as fast as Seattle requested, so the city must rethink its spending strategy for crosstown transit.

Share story

Seattle residents are paying millions of dollars in taxes for more transit service, but King County Metro can’t deploy all the buses the city wants on its streets.

That means some routes will remain packed through busy commute times, while some midday and night buses will keep arriving every 20 or 30 minutes, instead of the 10-minute frequent service city leaders promised.

Voters in 2014 approved a new car-tab fee and sales tax hike, raising just over $50 million per year and adding 270,000 operating hours annually for routes throughout the city.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and Seattle Children’s hospital. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

Learn more about Traffic Lab » | Follow us on Twitter »

For this fall, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) initially requested a boost of another 100,000 hours.

But Metro says it can’t hire and train drivers that fast, nor is there enough space in its Sodo maintenance bases to enlarge the fleet. So SDOT can buy only one-seventh of the trips it wanted, or 15,000 hours, to begin Sept. 22.

“The story is just that Seattle has experienced tremendous ridership growth, driven by a strong economy,” said Katie Chalmers, service-planning supervisor at Metro. “People are looking for alternatives to a car. Even with a robust funding stream, demand has outpaced our ability to add to the supply.”

Metro is still using its own countywide sales tax to increase bus service on targeted routes, including Seattle — mainly where lower-income areas need access, or where a series of downtown construction projects will delay major bus routes.

SDOT will carry several million dollars into next year to buy bus trips, said city spokeswoman Mafara Hobson. The department was unable to provide a current or proposed budget for the sales and car-tab funds voters approved in 2014.

Meanwhile, Metro will cover many of Seattle’s greatest needs by adding county-funded service this fall.

Chalmers said Metro will gain some capacity to add buses next year by expanding its Atlantic bus maintenance base in Sodo. Long term, Metro is looking at south-county locations for its eighth base.

SDOT is now writing a changed proposal for additional service, Hobson said, to include “the introduction of new transit modes and opportunities” that don’t rely on Metro buses.

Seattle would increase student-fare subsidies, now $1 million a year, to $4.8 million a year. That’s how Mayor Jenny Durkan would fulfill her pledge to supply free-ride ORCA fare cards to all city high-school students and certain community-college students.

SDOT also proposes loosening city law, so Seattle money would buy more trips on the RapidRide E Line into Shoreline, Route 120 into Burien, and Route 106 into Renton.

“Once folks cross the city line, we’ve got to take care of them,” Hobson said.

To protect Seattle taxpayers, the 2014 ballot measure required partnerships where suburbs split the costs with Seattle, but those three cities have not contributed.

“Burien is a pretty cash-strapped city. To be honest, we’ve got fairly low property values, and historically we’ve run a lean city government. We just don’t have the resources,” said Brian Roberts, Burien assistant public- works director. Nor did Seattle ask Burien for the money, he said.

The City Council also is heading for a “reset” of its $930 million Move Seattle property-tax levy to fund street safety, transit-lane and maintenance projects, now threatened by rising expenses and unrealistic cost estimates.

The city acknowledges it can no longer keep its 2014 campaign pledge to upgrade seven bus lines to RapidRide service, an issue related to buying more Metro transit hours.

The 2014 bus-service measure added a new $60 car-tab fee and a sales tax of 1 cent per $10 purchase.

The ballot measure was Seattle’s reaction to minor service cuts by Metro, which failed to win its own tax increase.

The additional money bought Seattle five times more service than what Metro cut.

Only 16 percent of the 270,000 additional hours purchased in 2015-16 were targeted specifically at reducing crowding, a city performance report says.

The rest went to all-day service, overnight service, places lacking bus access, and improved reliability in chronically late routes.

SDOT’s spending did follow the vision by campaigners, including former Mayor Ed Murray, former SDOT director Scott Kubly and current Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan. They hoped more buses on the street would create their own demand — and even transform how people get around the city.

Currently, 67 percent of city residents live within a half-mile of buses passing every 10 minutes, with a goal of 72 percent. SDOT reports these increases have attracted 14,000 more daily riders.

Blanket coverage is popular, but there are drawbacks to running more buses than there are people to fill them.

Service hours are expensive. Prices range from $134 an hour for a short hybrid bus, to $166 for a 60-foot electric trolley bus, in the city’s existing deal with Metro. And a single bus hammers the pavement as much as a concrete mixer, or 3,000 passenger cars.

Metro drivers can complete more runs per day if the city adds transit lanes and signals to keep buses moving, rather than spend dollars on more bus-driver wages and vehicles.

“We are definitely hitting the limit of what we can add at the peak,” Chalmers said. “If you wanted to run the E Line every 2 minutes, we don’t have the base capacity even to operate that much service.”

The Aurora Avenue E Line is Metro’s most popular, serving 18,000 passengers daily.

Some uses for Seattle’s limited 15,000 extra hours include trips in underserved Lake City; more buses so fewer people must stand in the aisles through Ballard, Interbay and West Seattle; and 10-minute frequency for the Northgate and Eastlake corridors.

Seattle’s special five-year tax stream expires in 2020. Voters will likely see a measure to renew it.