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Originally published April 22, 2012 at 8:02 PM | Page modified April 23, 2012 at 11:18 AM

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Metro bus riders face big changes

King County Metro Transit is preparing for what it calls the biggest package of route changes in the agency's history, cutting thousands of service hours from outlying Seattle neighborhoods so more buses run on busier corridors.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

What is "RapidRide"?

Coming to Ballard

and West Seattle

KING COUNTY METRO TRANSIT is converting two more corridors to RapidRide, which is designed to provide faster, more frequent service. The A Line already runs on International Boulevard South, while B Line serves Redmond, Overlake, Crossroads and downtown Bellevue. RapidRide's main features:

Frequency: Buses arrive every 10 minutes at peak and every 15 minutes off-peak, so there's no need to carry a schedule.

Streets: More bus lanes, early green signals for the bus at some intersections, and protruding sidewalks that avoid the need for buses to pull over at stops.

Colors: Mustard and red.

Doors: Three instead of two, for quicker boarding.

Interior: More standing space, fewer seats.

Shelters: Wider roofs and lighting.

Platforms: Level with bus, so wheelchairs can roll aboard.

Information: Electronic displays on shelters say when the next bus will arrive.

Payment: Riders can tap ORCA fare cards at sidewalk readers, allowing them to enter any of the three doors.

Source: King County Metro Transit

Last chance to speak

THE METROPOLITAN KING COUNTY COUNCIL is almost ready to reduce some less-used lines and put more buses on certain busy routes.

Coming up

Public comment: will be allowed at a committee meeting Wednesday, at 9:30 a.m. in the King County Courthouse, 516 Third Avenue, Seattle.

Final vote: by the whole council sometime in May.

Changes begin: Sept. 29.

Ride-free zone dropped: The council previously voted to eliminate the downtown ride-free zone Sept. 29, but the question of how to serve poor, short-distance and homeless riders remains unsettled.

Graphic: Metro changes

King County Metro Transit is launching RapidRide lines to Ballard and West Seattle this fall, part of a wide-ranging route update.Click to enlarge map

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King County Metro Transit is preparing for what it calls the biggest package of route changes in the agency's history, cutting thousands of service hours from outlying Seattle neighborhoods so more buses run on busier corridors.

The Sept. 29 shake-up enables Metro to deliver the new RapidRide C line in West Seattle and the D line in Ballard, as promised in a 2006 ballot measure.

People in these areas, along with travelers on major Burien, White Center and Delridge routes, will gain more reliable service, and across town there will be more trips linking Ballard to Northgate.

The losers will be people who live in some outlying neighborhoods, and disabled riders who strain to reach new stop locations, which on some lines will be spaced farther apart.

Metro will launch its long-anticipated Route 50, its first crosstown bus from West Seattle to Rainier Valley, to reach the VA Medical Center and Sound Transit's Sodo, Columbia City and Othello light-rail stations.

In a separate planning effort, the Metropolitan King County Council has voted to end its downtown ride-free zone Sept. 29. But government agencies don't yet have a clear plan to serve poor, short-distance and homeless riders who can't afford full fare.

The current thinking is to run a circulator that includes a swing up First Hill to Harborview Medical Center, but a proposal to rely on minibuses has provoked opposition. Councilman Larry Gossett has promised to air the issue in hearings.

Meanwhile, Metro is taking advantage of RapidRide as an occasion to streamline the whole network.

A regional supercommittee wrote a 2011-21 strategic plan, passed by the county, in response to tight budgets and taxpayer gripes about paying for empty bus lines. The new plan scores routes based on ridership, access to busy residential and employment sites, and social equity as measured by income or race.

Routes that are being reduced carry an average 26 riders per bus hour, while those being increased carry 36 per hour, says Victor Obeso, service-development manager.

A final decision by the County Council is due in May, after months of hearings and block-by-block dickering among Metro staff, interest groups and the public.

Metro so far has avoided the drastic cutbacks of Pierce Transit, which cut service 35 percent in 2011, and Community Transit of Snohomish County, which has taken 37 percent cuts since 2009, including cancellation of all Sunday trips, due to lower sales-tax revenues that subsidize the buses.

King County enacted a temporary $20 car-tab fee, drained surplus funds and won federal grants to stave off disaster until the end of 2013.

Winners

The most visible change is RapidRide, an incomplete form of "bus rapid transit" that aims to make buses more reliable and comfortable, like a train. King County's version improves on conventional buses but lacks the fully separate lanes and huge capacity of the world's most famous BRT lines, such as the TransMilenio in Bogotá, Colombia.

Buses for C and D lines will arrive every 10 minutes at peak times, and every 15 minutes most other times. Stops will be farther apart than the Route 54 and Route 15 they replace — so buses get downtown faster. There will be low-floor buses with three doors, to enable quicker boarding.

Among other changes:

• Route 18 through Ballard will continue beyond its present endpoint at Crown Hill, allowing connections every 15 minutes from Ballard to North Seattle Community College and Northgate Transit Center.

• The VA Medical Center gains front-door service on Route 50, and Metro changed course to keep Route 60 coming from Georgetown and north Beacon Hill. Stopping out on the street would have forced disabled clients to walk uphill to the entrance, Obeso said.

• The Westwood Village shopping center, at the city's far southwest end, will suddenly become a transit hub, reached by six all-day routes, including the busy 120 line, instead of two.

• Besides offering crosstown trips, the new Route 50 includes a westward climb that will help north Delridge residents make a steep one-mile trip to West Seattle Junction's three grocery stores and several restaurants.

• Routes 131 and 132, from Burien to South Park and Sodo, are getting more buses and a straighter alignment.

Also, within the next year or so, the busy Route 120 — from Burien, White Center and Delridge to downtown — would get new bus lanes and signals just south of the Nucor Steel Mill, and other stop and signal improvements on the whole line. Buses will keep going every 8 to 15 minutes most hours.

Losers

While Metro adds service for 12 routes, 25 will be reduced or eliminated. Many cuts are of little overall consequence, although people count on those lines for their commute or appointments.

One example is Route 37, on wealthy and lightly populated Beach Drive in West Seattle. It was to be scrapped altogether but wound up as a peak-only service in the final April proposal.

Likewise, Route 21 is being retracted to give only peak-time service to Arbor Heights. Beyond the hillside of view homes, the line goes a few blocks inland to middle-class and rental houses off 35th Avenue Southwest.

Riders near Seward Park are steamed that their routes 34 and 39 to downtown are being scrapped, so they would have to ride a 50 then switch to Link light rail. In the evening, users would stand alongside the rail stops until a bus shows up.

"At this point, there is no longer a good enough reason for me to take the bus and not drive," said Route 39 rider Ed Rosen, adding that his bus is almost always full.

A resident in Ballard groused about plans to drop Route 46, leaving Shilshole Marina completely unserved.

In one of the few remaining arguments, Greenwood neighborhood boosters are trying to have the 18 hit the Greenwood retail area using North 85th Street, instead of slanting on Northwest Holman Road. That way, Ballard and Greenwood and Northgate — three of the city's urban villages — can be linked without forcing riders to change buses, says Greenwood resident Kate Martin, who held a pro-18 sign at a hearing last week.

"Northgate's two miles for me, Ballard's two miles for me," she said. "I think the Metro planning and the city of Seattle planning are on two different tracks."

Cycle of debate, change

Metro has been out with proposals since October and took about 10,000 comments. Planning overhauls in Seattle typically set off a cycle in which planners suggest a starkly efficient winnowing or reshuffle, and then riders, social agencies or interest groups complain about the individual cases when people lose a transport lifeline until Metro backs off the throttle.

"You do have to talk to the people who use the system. Our planners are not all-knowing," said General Manager Kevin Desmond. This cycle happens throughout North America, he said.

One compromise is to put a new Route 61 along the west edge of Ballard on 32nd Avenue Northwest, partly compensating for two routes going away.

A more visible case was Route 2, an electric trolley bus from Queen Anne Hill to First Hill. Metro wanted to break it into two lines — and shift a section one block from Seneca to Madison Street — to create a frequent super-corridor where the 2 and Route 12 constantly run along Madison. But the change would have forced Queen Anne users to switch buses on Third Avenue.

"Every time a senior has to get on a bus, get off a bus, it's dangerous for them, especially in inclement weather," said Uptown resident Jane Couchman, 75, who rides the 2 to medical appointments.

Last week, she thanked Metro leaders for keeping the line intact, at least for now.

"In Seattle, at bottom, every issue is a transportation issue," Couchman said later.

Desmond insists that "with very few exceptions, in this service change we have not totally disenfranchised anyone."

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

On Twitter @mikelindblom.

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