Decreased bus ridership along future light rail route

Decreased bus ridership along future light rail route
Sound Transit is proposing to eliminate a bus route segment between Bellevue and Issaquah due to low ridership. The transit agency is planning to build a light rail line there by 2041. Photo: Andrew Nash

Sound Transit this week will hold a public hearing on proposed changes to bus services to be implemented next March. Among them is the elimination of an express bus route segment between Eastgate in Bellevue and Issaquah due to low ridership, where it also plans to build a segment for an estimated $1.9 billion light rail line by 2041.

Route 555 runs from Northgate in Seattle to the Issaquah Highlands. However, in recent years ridership has shrunk; according to its latest figures, the combined 555/556 routes had 1,461 weekday boardings, nearly 10 percent less (1,620) than last year’s ridership. In contrast, some bus routes in Pierce County experienced a 30 percent ridership increase during the same timeframe.

Sound Transit’s draft Service Implementation Plan (SIP) reports that this spring there was an average of 686 weekday boardings for Route 555, compared to 730 in 2015 (page 151). Those boarding were evenly divided between east and westbound. Total annual boardings for that route have shrunk from 189,334 in 2015 to 183,031 this spring.

According to the draft SIP, the change would impact roughly a fifth of Route 555’s current ridership. “These resources will be redeployed elsewhere in East King County, primarily to restore Route 554 trips eliminated due to the closure of the Rainier Freeway Station. By redeploying resources, more riders can be served and more destinations reached than if resources continue to be spent on unproductive trips with parallel service available.”

However, the Eastgate-Issaquah segment of Route 555 is where Sound Transit plans to eventually build an extension of its light rail line from Kirkland down through Bellevue. When completed in 2041, the regional transit agency estimates the entire Kirkland-Bellevue-Issaquah line will serve 12,000-15,000 daily riders. The agency also estimates that it will be able to get passengers from Issaquah to south Kirkland in 25 minutes, and vice versa. The project would include a 500-stall parking garage and pedestrian bridge over I-90 in Issaquah.

While transportation expert John Niles told Lens that the current low ridership for that route doesn’t foretell what demand might be in 20 years, he added that “it casts some suspicion on the idea of light rail way out there.” Niles is president of Global Telematics and author of The End of Driving: Transportation Systems and Public Policy Planning for Autonomous Vehicles.

“My view of anything beyond 2030…is that it doesn’t count,” he said. “They’ve got problems much closer that are going to be revealed as they go forward. We just don’t know what the landscape…is going to be. They have it (the project) sketched. It’s not worth thinking about. We don’t have a clue of what things are going to look like in 2030s.”

A 2014 Sound Transit study of I-405 including the Kirkland-Bellevue-Issaquah corridor noted that bus rapid transit “was recommended as the preferred HCT (high capacity transit) system due to its flexibility to meet the varying needs of travel markets along the 30‐mile corridor.”

Adding uncertainty to the situation is the ultimate role of driverless cars and how it could impact transit ridership demand. A state task force is examining how to integrate them on public roads, while ST3 includes an innovation fund to “prepare for changing transportation technologies, such as self-driving cars and shared car services.”

“As automation gets better, that kind of small vehicle service is going to go out to the suburbs,” Niles said.

A January 2016 letter from the Issaquah City Council to the Sound Transit Board of Directors and Chair Dow Constantine urged that the light rail line be included in ST3. “To ensure its success, Issaquah’s new urban growth center requires frequent and consistent transit service.” At the time, Issaquah Mayor Fred Butler was on the Sound Transit Board.

Former Bellevue City Councilmember Kevin Wallace told Lens that the low ridership numbers in that corridor suggests Sound Transit should “take another look to see if there’s a better way to spend money for transit” than light rail from Bellevue to Issaquah. “They haven’t spent the money yet; they’re not planning to design it for ten years.”

Niles shares that view. “We really need to make sure that the flexibility is there to change our mind about some things.”

The public hearing for the proposed service changes will start at 1 p.m. on Nov. 8 at the Union Station’s Ruth Fisher Boardroom in Seattle. An open house will be held afterward from 5-7 p.m.

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