Managing the rapidly worsening coronavirus pandemic is the most urgent purpose at present for all levels of government everywhere. The pandemic has had profound impacts on public services in the Pacific Northwest, including transportation.
In the face of a rapidly-evolving situation, local transit agencies are modifying service and long-term plans to ensure the viability of their operations.
King County Metro won’t submit a request for funding to voters
With Seattle’s Transportation Benefit District expiring at the end of 2020, county officials were hoping to ask county voters in August to fund regional mobility improvements.
With the current public health emergency and anticipated negative economic impacts, Metropolitan King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci of Bellevue announced that the county would no longer move forward with a levy package.
Scheduled to expire at the end of the year is a $60 car-tab fee and 0.1% sales tax levied in the City of Seattle. This has augmented Metro’s existing funding to enable increased service frequencies, new programs like Via to Transit and Trailhead Direct, and ORCA opportunity programs.
County officials were hoping to largely replace that funding with a countywide sales tax increase, but that is off the table.
Councilmember Balducci’s statement also indicates a wish for the Legislature to open up new funding pathways for transit locally, especially with the uncertainty surrounding I‑976.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan intended to maintain the bus service improvements that her city has benefited from since 2014, but it remains to be seen how that will be pursued in light of recent developments. The City has until May 8th to send a measure to the ballot.
In the long run, this is a speed bump for implementation of Metro Connects, the 25-year plan approved by the county council in 2017. Features of this plan include increasing service hours from 3.5 million to 6 million annually, upping the amount of RapidRide lines to 26, and supporting 73% of King County residents with easy transit access within walking distance.
Scheduled route adjustments will continue
King County Metro has been planning a large restructure of bus service on the North Eastside, to come into effect March 21st, 2020. These changes will go ahead — but be subject to the same temporary service reductions the entire agency is planning in the face of our public health emergency.
In the past, buses in the Kirkland/Kenmore/Woodinville/Redmond areas were complicated and not useful.
Put simply, the old routes were not direct enough. They tried to serve too many locations at once, which decreased the appeal of the bus for riders looking to move quickly between major centers.
The new restructure aims to straighten out buses across the North Eastside, with more direct, city-to-city connections being preferred to circuitous neighborhood-centric routes. Totem Lake, Brickyard, South Kirkland, and UW Bothell will all receive better connections to major hubs.
A few major route changes to note: Route 255, the main connection from Kirkland to Seattle for commuters, will also receive an overhaul.
Instead of fighting traffic into Downtown Seattle, the 255 will exit State Route 520 at the University of Washington and riders will need to transfer to Link light rail.
Also coming into service is the new Sound Transit Route 544, which will link the 520 corridor directly to South Lake Union for the first time. This will allow Eastside commuters headed to South Lake Union to bypass downtown.
Over at the Seattle Transit Blog, you’ll find a detailed analysis of the route changes for Northeast King County. And King County Metro has provided a handy map tool and informational page to keep riders updated.
Temporary service reductions, elimination of fares widespread
If you are making an essential trip via transit, remember to practice physical distancing and maintain personal hygiene. Allocate extra time for your trip, as online trip planners will not account for the service reductions.
Locally, King County Metro and Sound Transit both announced across-the-board reductions in service levels for the time being. Sound Transit was reporting a 69% drop in ridership at the beginning of last week. Service reductions are taking place across the board: Sounder and Express bus service are all affected.
Link Light Rail’s Connect 2020 project has also been extended, after the last round of safety testing revealed electrical issues that must be resolved. The Connect 2020-related service reductions will continue to remain in effect until further notice.
Fare enforcement has also been paused on Link. Downtown stations will be closed again this weekend, and during this closure only all Link rides will be free, system-wide.
Local agencies are having to balance the continued transit needs for essential public workers and communities without transportation alternatives, while absorbing the cuts to revenue resulting from the elimination of fare box income and decreased sales tax revenue.
Metro will be reducing the amount of trips on nearly all bus routes. Service will be entirely cut on eleven Metro-operated low-ridership routes.
Metro is also suspending the Community Ride program. While ridership is low and irregular, these routes provide critical access to services for folks in Black Diamond/Enumclaw, Shoreline/Lake Forest Park, Normandy Park, and Sammamish. The implementation of the new Juanita and Bothell/Woodinville Community Rides will be delayed. (The Des Moines Community Shuttle will run reduced service while the Mercer Island shuttle is suspended.)
Community van shuttle trips will continue to operate as long as there are volunteer drivers. This seems to be Metro’s plan to continue providing access for vulnerable communities. Areas served include Bothell/Woodinville, Duvall, Sammamish, Kenmore/Kirkland, Lake Forest Park/Shoreline, and Vashon.
The Via to Transit program, which aimed to increase low-income Link ridership in Southeast Seattle and Tukwila, will also not operate.
Lastly — and crucially — King County Metro will also be suspending fares on paratransit, water taxi, and Metro bus services. Rear-door boarding will be required, with the front reserved for the driver and customers who require the use of the boarding ramp.
Across our region, similar COVID-19-related modifications are taking place.
For the duration of the COVID19 emergency, Skagit Transit will go FARE FREE. Under the guidance to provide Social Distancing, not collecting a fare will allow riders and driver to observe the appropriate distance. Call Customer Service at 360–757-4433 if you have questions.
— Skagit Transit (@skagittransit) March 19, 2020
Buses in Skagit, Whatcom, and Jefferson counties have gone fare-free during the emergency to limit interpersonal contact (Intercity Transit is already fare-free). TransLink, the operator in the Vancouver, BC area, has also gone fare-free on its buses.
Island Transit is modifying its Saturday schedule for weekday service. Community Transit is studying service reductions but has not implemented anything yet — though certain peak-hour trips to King County have been cancelled due to staff shortages. Pierce Transit is reporting no modifications to service as of now.
To help protect our drivers we are now blocking off the first 2 rows directly behind the driver seat, on both sides of the bus. Help us keep them healthy by using #SocialDistancing and staying home if you are sick! pic.twitter.com/DjV7E1chBw
— Pierce Transit (@PierceTransit) March 19, 2020
Amtrak Cascades is suspending all services between Seattle and Vancouver, BC, running replacement buses until Bellingham. Service along the rest of the line from Seattle to Eugene has been reduced; see the Cascades website for details.
The King County Water Taxi has delayed the roll-out of summer service. Kitsap Transit water taxis are operating with reduced capacity to maintain distancing.
Lastly, Washington State Ferries has suspended all galley services and suspended no-show/cancellation fees, but hasn’t reduced sailings system-wide. The seasonal service from Anacortes and the San Juans to Vancouver Island has, however, had its launch delayed by a month. Its first sailing is tentatively scheduled for April 26th.