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Originally published Monday, November 1, 2010 at 1:14 PM

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Snow plan for Metro buses: Do better by limiting routes

With forecasters predicting a colder, snowier winter this year, Metro Transit is gearing up to make sure riders are prepared if their buses don't show up.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Information

Metro's seven service areas: metro.kingcounty.gov (Click on "Snow, Ice & Flood" in "Alerts Center" box. Map is at lower right.)

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With forecasters predicting a colder, snowier winter, Metro Transit is gearing up to make sure riders are prepared if their buses don't show up.

"The more we talk about it, the more we'll scare it away," joked Kevin Desmond, Metro's general manager. "Snow to us is a four-letter word."

Metro, which serves nearly 400,000 riders each weekday, hopes to avoid the problems of the winter of 2008, when December storms paralyzed the city, bringing snow and freezing temperatures.

In a presentation Monday to the Metropolitan King County Council, Desmond said Metro has made several changes to handle what is expected to be a troublesome winter.

Meteorologists are warning a La Niña pattern is likely to bring colder, wetter and snowier conditions this year. The severe snowstorms of 2008, floods that closed parts of Interstate 5 in 2007, and the windstorm that knocked out power to more than a million homes and businesses in 2006 are examples of what winter in Western Washington can dish out.

What makes it tough to operate buses in the snow is that there are 39 different jurisdictions Metro must deal with in King County, and some do a better job than others in keeping roads clear, Desmond said.

"We want to get people to be aware we may be in for a tough winter," he said. "We have 9,000 bus stops."

King County also prepared for a bad winter a year ago, but that didn't materialize. "We didn't get to practice it last year," Desmond said.

In considering which bus routes to curtail in the county, Metro will look at overall service in seven geographical zones.

"Our biggest mistake is to try to keep the service in bad conditions," Desmond said.

When snow begins to fall, Metro buses will go to snow routing in its seven geographical areas, and the service status will be color-coded on Metro's website. Green will indicate buses are operating on normal routes, yellow will mean some are on snow routes, and red will tell riders that all buses in a geographic area are on snow routing.

If conditions warrant it, King County will go to what it calls an Emergency Service Network, in which its more than 220 routes will be reduced to 70. Desmond said 56 percent of Metro's fleet are articulated buses and trolleys, which don't do well in the snow.

One of the biggest issues, Desmond said, is letting riders know about transit delays and reroutes. He said that in the winter of 2008-09, 180,000 people tried to get through on Metro's telephone lines, clogging the system.

He urges instead that people sign up for Metro's transit alerts by going to www.kingcounty.gov/metro/signup. Desmond said 10,000 people already have signed up for the alerts.

He said Metro still has several problems:

• Metro buses aren't yet equipped to alert the base about delays. That upgrade is planned next year.

• There's no real-time information for riders to know where their bus is.

• Metro's online trip planner may not be accurate in cases of winter weather delays.

Desmond said there also are concerns that infrequent bus riders, who may decide to ride transit in a snowstorm, may be unfamiliar with bus routes. He said those riders should familiarize themselves with the system now.

The King County Road Services division will have about 13,000 cubic yards of sand, 600 cubic yards of salt and 45,000 gallons of anti-icing material stockpiled at 10 field offices throughout the county. During heavy snowfall, crews will be placed on 12-hour shifts to provide a round-the-clock response, said the King County Department of Transportation.

In 2008, Metro wound up cutting service in half, in part because of bad conditions in Seattle. Many electrically powered buses became stranded on hills between Interstate 5 and Lake Washington.

Metro's intent this year is to try to do better by initially attempting less. "Two years ago when we had a series of December and January snowstorms, we probably tried to provide too much service," Desmond said. "Our revised plans call for limited service during the worst storms."

As for a white Christmas? Desmond doesn't care, since Christmas will fall on a Saturday this year. "That works for us," he said. "Snow on the weekend only."

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

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