Ty Swenson
On the left, from front to back, Victor Obeso with King County Metro, King County Executive Tranportation Advisor Chris Arkills, and Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen meet and answer questions from West Seattle residents at a transportation forum on Oct. 19. The forum was sponsored by Sustainable West Seattle.

West Seattleites vent transportation woes at forum

The who's-who of transportation in King County and Seattle were invited to a Sustainable West Seattle Transportation Forum on Oct. 15, and were met with a sea of frustration from over 50 West Seattle residents over loss of service and unfulfilled promises of the RapidRide C Line in the wake of sweeping changes implemented on Sept. 29.

The panel included Seattle City Council Transportation Chair Tom Rasmussen, King County Executive Transportation Advisor Chis Arkills, Metro Direct of Service Development Victor Obeso, Seattle Department of Transportation Director Peter Hahn, and, representing one outside the system, Seattle Transit Blog Editor-in-Chief Martin Duke.

The audience included a strong contingent of Arbor Heights residents who came to discuss their loss of off-peak hour service to their neighborhood, several RapidRide riders fed up with full buses passing them by and a lack of regularity in stops, and others who have endured lost or changed service since the route revisions took place.

Before delving into specific questions from the audience, the panel was allowed a short introduction to illustrate who they are and what they are responsible for. A common theme arose: budget shortfalls.

SDOT’s Hahn said his department is responsible for $13 billion worth of infrastructure that takes up one-quarter of the land in Seattle. He said the city council recently estimated it would take $141 million a year for SDOT to keep up on all the maintenance needs in the city. Last year they got around $35 million.

“I think it is widely recognized … that we just don’t have enough money to do a thorough job.”

Metro’s Obeso called the Sept. 29 Metro revamp the “most comprehensive and significant changes” at one time in their service history, “so I recognize that for many of you it represents some significant changes and upheaval in your schedule.”

Obeso said from 2009 to 2012, transit ridership in West Seattle has grown 22 percent “in part because people didn’t want to drive through traffic (think Viaduct construction) and in part because we were offering better service.” Compare that 22 percent, he said, to six percent growth in the rest of the city, and you can see the challenge of providing proper transit service to West Seattle.

He went on to say the $20 Congestion Reduction car tab fee passed by the King County Council will sustain Metro for two years, “But we still face the financial cliff, if you will, of that revenue source going away and the potential that we will still need to reduce our system in late 2014, 2015 and beyond.”

Arkills, from Dow Constantine’s Office, said the transportation puzzle in King County is a tough one.

“We are not building any new freeways, we are not building any new streets,” he said. “We are trying to figure out how to make the road network that we have work best for transit, for bicycles and for automobiles, and that is posing a lot of challenges.

Councilmember Rasmussen said the $60 car tab fee on last year’s ballot was “resoundingly” rejected (based largely on the argument that it was a regressive tax – taking a larger percentage from lower-income people than higher income). The challenge, he said, is that the state only allows King County and Seattle to raise funds for transportation through a few means – car registration fees and tolls.

Duke from the Seattle Transit Blog summed up his position thusly: “About 18 months ago … I think I was cautiously optimistic about the future of transit in Seattle, and in the past 18 months that has been replaced with something like absolute despair.”

Onto the issues …

RapidRide crammed, not rapid, not reliable
The implementation of the RapidRide C Line from West Seattle to downtown, promising stops every 10 to 15 minutes and a “rapid” ride either way in a state-of-the-art bus, has not gone as smoothly as Metro (and certainly commuters) had hoped. Buses have been too full to take any more and been forced to bypass waiting riders, the stops have been highly erratic and nowhere near the promise of 10 to 15 minutes, and the smartphone app One Bus Away is not working with the buses to predict arrival time (Obeso said they are trying to figure out a solution).

“In our first few days of operation, it was not a good scene in West Seattle and we fully recognize that,” Obeso said. “We know that we experienced significant high loads in the peak period and we know we were passing some people up at stops. That is not our desire, that is not our design for service.”

Obeso said Metro has added trips during peak periods and two additional buses for C and D (service to Ballard) lines in morning and afternoon. He said part of the problem is an acclimation period for drivers, getting used to the timing and rhythm of their new routes. He claimed things have smoothed out since implementation (some in the audience disagreed), “but we know it can get better.”

Arkills said King County hopes to expand RapidRide service in the future, and the 120 route servicing Delridge is a top candidate.

Arbor Heights and the loss of service
At least 15 Arbor Heights residents attended the forum to plead with Metro to reconsider the changes made to service in their neighborhood. The 21 bus stopped service to the southern West Seattle neighborhood (instead, it now veers east on S.W. Barton St. to Westwood Village), leaving only peak hour service from the 21 Express and occasional trips on the 22. If riders are heading home after 7 p.m. M-Sat. or 6 p.m. on Sunday, for example, they are forced to walk several blocks south from Barton St. Metro said they cut service to the area because the ridership numbers were in the bottom tier, telling them more service in other parts of West Seattle would serve more riders.

Jon Grant, an Arbor Heights resident who started a petition on Change.org to ask Metro to restore “reliable and frequent” service to the area, addressed the panel.

“There is no way to get home from this meeting tonight (it started at 7 p.m.),” Grant said, clearly illustrating their dilemma. “It’s already raining, it’s already getting cold … It’s a pretty bad situation … there are not a lot of sidewalks, there are a lot of hills, there are not a lot of lights … and I’m really afraid that someone is going to get hit by a car.”

Both Obeso and Arkills said Metro is actively looking at what they can do to improve the situation, but no solutions were offered on the night.

“I absolutely realize people’s daily lives depend on (transit service) and I don’t think we have the right mix of service and I think Victor’s staff is looking at whether we can improve or restore some of that service to Arbor Heights,” Arkills said, “but there is not an area in the county that doesn’t want more transit service. There are 2 million people in this county, and every community is clamoring for more transit service.”

Brainstorming kicked in and several people asked if it would be possible to provide shuttle service in Arbor Heights in order to get people to and from the corner of Barton and 35th. Obeso said shuttle service is nearly as expensive as full 60 ft. bus service and, with budget issues at hand, it would be a hard sell. Pushing farther into that issue, one woman asked if the county would consider a public-private partnership, so a private company could do the shuttle work. It is a possibility, Arkills said, but there are constraints placed by the transit driver’s union. Rasmussen suggested contacting local churches, elderly homes and other community groups with vans that often sit idle about getting involved in the service.

Arbor Heights residents were not alone in their frustration over loss of service. One woman talked about the loss of 56 and circulator service in her Admiral neighborhood, leading to long walks to and from RapidRide stops.

Looking for an apology
An audience member asked Obeso to apologize to the people of West Seattle “for the failings in the implementation of this huge transition,” and “for the lack of response to our frustrations.”

“I am truly sorry that those changes have not gone as we had planned for them to go, and I am truly sorry that we have left some people at the curb over these first few weeks,” Obeso responded.

He said his department has tried to be responsive and transparent, adding bus lines to RapidRide and sending out press releases on the process.

“We are trying to make it better, and we are doing so with a limited set of resources and with direction to make the resources that we do have as effective – which means carry as many people with each hour of bus service as possible – I would much rather be adding to our system rather than taking from (Arbor Heights) …” he said.

Light Rail? Not anytime soon
The question was raised as to whether West Seattle might see funding and implementation of a light rail anytime in the foreseeable future.

Duke with the Seattle Transit Blog said, at age 36, he intends to retire around 2044. He doesn’t expect to see a light rail in West Seattle from Sound Transit in that time, due in large part to disinterest at the state level.

Arkills said the city had the opportunity in the late 1960s and early 70s to build a rail (at that time it would have been a “heavy rail”) with the federal government picking up 90 percent of the tab, but voters rejected it.

He said a light rail in West Seattle is a difficult project because it would have to cross the Duwamish and because of the challenges of “crazy topography” on the peninsula.

A light rail would cost billions, he said, while RapidRide service costs millions. RapidRide is not a light rail, he conceded, “but is something we can deliver and implement and hope to grow.”

As the meeting drew to a close, an avid Metro rider living near the Alaska Junction stood up and explained, as others had, how his RapidRide experience has been anything but smooth. He said if the troubles continue he will “have trouble saving face” in convincing his friends to use public transportation instead of driving to work every day.

“If you want to get people out of their cars,” another man said, “you have to show them a system that works.”

We encourage our readers to comment. No registration is required. We ask that you keep your comments free of profanity and keep them civil. They are moderated and objectionable comments will be removed.