After reducing light-rail service during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sound Transit will restore trains beginning Saturday, so they arrive every eight minutes at peak commute times, every 10 minutes midday and weekends, and every 15 minutes late nights.

The new schedules ensure room to carry more riders before the crucial date of Oct. 2, when new U District, Roosevelt and Northgate stations open.

“The days are longer, the weather is warmer, the virus is retreating, and we are all venturing out more and more,” Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said in announcing the changes. “In the coming months as more and more people return to normal routines, expanded Link service will help riders get back to enjoying fast and congestion-free trips.”

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, Kemper Development Co., Madrona Venture Group, 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.

For now, ridership remains low at just 22,000 daily passengers as of mid-May, compared to 80,000 before the pandemic. Light rail now operates from the University of Washington to Angle Lake Station in SeaTac.

Jarrett Walker, a Portland-based transit network planner and author, lauded the agency for bringing back eight-minute frequency.

Advertising

“What we’re seeing everywhere is that service restorations have to get ahead of ridership,” Walker said. Otherwise a transit agency will suppress its own customer base, he said.

Sound Transit said a shortage of train operators, caused by COVID-19 illnesses and quarantines, was the main reason for curtailing service. Operators are now available.

Eight of the new Siemens railcars are now in service, providing additional passenger capacity and legroom in the midsections.

Riders are still expected to wear a face covering on the trains, based on Jan. 29 guidance from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly all light-rail passengers are doing so, spokesperson John Gallagher said. Those who don’t are encouraged by security staff to grab a free mask aboard the train, but guards do not remove people, he said.

Experts and the public are still speculating about how deeply work-from-home, fear of contagion, or other cultural changes will undermine transit use. Telework rates already were near 6% for central Seattle before the pandemic.

For that reason, all-day service is more crucial than commute volumes,
Walker said. He suggests deploying transit as essential infrastructure, like a public utility. “We need it to be there all of the time,” he said.

Advertising

Nobody knows yet how the business world will react, but ridership won’t return to pre-pandemic levels soon, Walker said.

King County Metro Transit added supplemental buses to certain routes — such as the A Line on International Boulevard South and Route 7 on Rainier Avenue South — which enabled social distancing. The routes continued to be lifelines for service workers and medical workers.

Statewide transit ridership was only 42% of normal as of mid-April, while vehicle travel has rebounded to 94% as of early June, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation tracker.

To be sure, service cutbacks persuaded some people to get back into cars and for-hire vehicles, instead of waiting for Sound Transit trains 12 minutes apart at peak, 15 minutes off-peak, and 30 minutes after about 10:30 p.m.

Moody’s Investor’s Service in March predicted a 20% drop in demand at large transit agencies including New York MTA and Vancouver, B.C., TransLink, until population growth brings the crowds back.

As fewer people rode, Steven Polzin, a former federal transportation adviser, calculated national fuel efficiency for buses dwindled from 26.6 passenger miles per gallon to 14.5 passenger mpg last year, and asserted that “underused transit vehicles do not fight climate change.”

Advertising

Factors in transit’s favor are ongoing construction of offices and housing in Seattle; growth in Bellevue’s downtown and Spring districts near the 2023 East Link line; the Kraken NHL hockey team’s fall debut and concerts at Seattle Center; and the three Northgate light-rail stations, predicted to add 45,000 daily passengers.

King County Metro, which restored some trips in March, is still writing final plans to add more countywide service Oct. 2, spokesperson Jeff Switzer said.

The federal government dispensed billions to keep transit agencies afloat during a year of lost fares and stagnant local tax subsidies. President Joe Biden proposed another $85 billion infusion to help transit grow, and $80 billion for Amtrak interstate rail. Two weeks ago, Amtrak restored several trips in the Northwest.