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Will Seattle's Bus Prop 1 Solve Our Busing Problems?

Bus riders are used to competing for the few remaining spaces at the last stop before many West Seattle-bound buses enter the Viaduct. If Proposition 1 passes this November, King County would increase service at congested stops.

At the very end of your ballot, which you should have received in the mail by now, you’ll find Proposition 1.

The proposition would create a 0.1-percent sales tax and a $60 car tab increase to improve Metro bus service. Metro’s finances have been under a lot of scrutiny lately. So what would the money buy?

At 4:30 p.m. on a recent weekday, a crowd of people stand at a bus stop, waiting for an express bus to West Seattle. It's the last stop before many routes enter the Alaskan Way Viaduct, so riders sometimes find themselves competing for the few remaining spots on a bus.

A rapid ride bus pulls up. The doors open, but there’s no room. Julie McClave takes one look – and lets the bus go by.

"Sardines!” McClave says. “There is no way I’m getting on that bus."

There's another C bus several minutes behind, and it’s half empty. That's how it's supposed to work - when buses come frequently enough, it doesn't matter if you have to let one pass by.

Rider Dawn Adams also let the full bus go by. She says when that happens in the morning, it causes big problems.

"Just last week, the C line went by me twice,” Adams says. “And it wasn’t just me, it was like four or five other people. And it just drove by and we were both like, 'Awwww.'"

She showed up late to work and wrote Metro a letter of complaint. "They said they’d look into it,” she said, but she wasn’t hopeful.

Many letters about "pass-ups," as they’re called, show up on Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond’s desk. Sometimes, he answers them personally.

"We know where the trouble spots are," Desmond says. But knowing doesn’t help the problem.

Desmond says Metro’s service level is about 15 percent behind the current level of demand.

"When I see crowded buses, what I see there is, ‘Hey, I need to add service,’" he says. "I see an investment opportunity. I see the need. I see the relevance of the transit system."

Earlier this summer, it looked like things were going to get much worse. Dramatic cuts loomed for dozens of bus routes (a few of those cuts have already gone into effect). During this dramatic period, Seattle politicians drafted Proposition 1 to save the remaining bus routes.

Then, in a surprise move, King County Council told Metro it could spend money more freely by tapping into fleet maintenance and rainy day funds. The council made its recommendation after a peer review by other transit agencies suggested Metro's financial cushion was higher than average.

The county’s move frustrated County Executive Dow Constantine, who says Metro needs enough reserves to provide reliable service through a potential recession.

The final numbers are still being hammered out in county budget negotiations, but the momentum appears to have shifted in favor of saving the routes.

Meanwhile, Prop 1 remains on the ballot. And while the ballot language still speaks of preserving threatened routes, politicians are scrambling to get out a contradictory message: Prop 1 is now about expanding transit in Seattle.

What Would Prop 1 Buy?

Scott Kubly is with Seattle’s Department of transportation. He says "what we’re buying is a more comfortable ride, a more reliable ride, and one that we can use for more types of trips."

Kubly’s office came up with 57 routes that would benefit from Proposition 1 – including popular lines like South Seattle’s 7 bus. He would extend the Rapid Ride service from Ballard and West Seattle so both routes would pass through downtown, rather than terminating on downtown's periphery. He would also expand the University District’s express buses to the evenings and weekends.

Would Proposition 1 solve our busing problems?

“No,” says Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen. "If this is approved, we should be able to meet Seattle’s current need for reliable bus service. And that’s a wonderful thing; it’s been a long time since we’ve had that."

Seattle is expected to grow in the next few years, and an improved economy means more people are back on the road. Should we expect another ballot measure in a few years to help us keep up increased demand?

Metro is working with the state Legislature, Rasmussen says.

Reuven Carlyle, who represents northwest Seattle says the state Legislature has been too divided to come together over transit. He describes Prop 1 as "the culmination of years of anti-tax, anti-government rhetoric. It’s a tax born of sadness."

He’ll vote for it, even though he doesn’t like that form of taxation.

“We’re left with very few options,” he says. “The good, gracious people of Seattle and King County and the rest of the state have to make choices about how we’re choose to invest in our own infrastructure.”

Back at the last bus stop before the Viaduct, rider Tracy Benson agrees.

"I’m a mom. I need to get home before my kids get home from school," she explains. She says that when she's late, her 10-year-old son calls her every 10 minutes. He asks her, "Why didn't you drive?"

A moment later, her bus pulls up – the 125 to Westwood Village.

This time, there’s plenty of room.

Bus Routes Benefiting From Prop 1

Expanding 16 Bus Routes that are Chronically Overcrowded: Rapid Ride Lines C and D, 5, 8, 15X, 16, 18X, 28, 40, 41, 44, 48, 70, 71X, 72, and 74X.

Improving 48 Bus Routes that are Chronically Unreliable: Rapid Ride Lines C and D, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, 11, 14, 16, 17X, 18X, 21X, 21, 24, 25, 26X, 27, 28, 28X, 29, 31, 32, 33, 37, 40, 41, 43, 44, 48, 49, 55, 56, 57, 60, 64X, 66X, 70, 71, 72, 74X, 76, 83, and 99.Increase Frequency of 28 Bus Routes that have high demand for more frequent service: Rapid Ride lines C and D, 2, 5, 7, 8, 9X, 10, 11, 14, 16, 24, 25, 27, 30, 31, 32, 40, 41, 48, 49, 60, 66X, 67, 68, 70, 120, and 125.

Other potential initiatives to make Seattle Bus Service Better:

Extend RapidRide C Line north into South Lake Union area and add buses to support explosive ridership growth and so riders from the south don’t need to transfer to get to SLU.

Extend RapidRide D Line south into Pioneer Square so riders from the north don’t need to transfer to get to south Downtown.

Split C and D into two separate routes for better reliability.

Operate Route 70 evenings and Sundays to add much-needed capacity to UW.

Operate Routes 71X, 72X, and 73X evenings and Sundays to fix overloads and provide longer hours of express service to/from the UW, and to prepare for Link light rail opening in 2021.

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