County Transfers Bus Hours to South King Citing Equity Framework, Nixes Route 41

The Morrison (pictured in the left corner) was the centerpiece of "Fight for the Soul of Seattle" citing the frequent 911 calls. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

On Friday, Publicola reported on King County Council’s Thursday shelving of Councilmember Rod Dembowski’s budget proposal to keep 47,000 annual service hours from Route 41 inside his district with the threat of withholding funding. Dembowski represents the eastern half of North Seattle and the North King County suburbs. With Northgate Link opening in 2021, the respective bus restructuring process is set to cut Route 41 and transfer its hours to South Seattle, where King County Metro’s equity analysis indicates the greatest need.

At The Urbanist, we’ve followed the Northgate Link bus restructure. In our most recent reporting on the restructure, we mourned the decreased service and loss of potential routes in the newest round of changes. As currently planned, with the removal of Route 41, shift in Route 75, cut of a proposed east-west Route 61, and introduction of a peak-only Route 361, connections between the Northgate Transit Center and its surrounding neighborhoods would decrease from pre-pandemic service levels.

Courtesy of King County Metro – A snippet of the latest Northgate link bus restructure map focused on Northgate, Pinehurst, Lake City neighborhoods

Especially with service on NE Northgate Way between Roosevelt and Lake City Way downgraded to peak-only, connections between Northgate and Lake City will be worsened with the most recent plans. It is difficult to stomach the worsened bus connection to a new light rail station as it opens. At first we assumed that cuts were made as an austerity ploy to combat the Covid-19 induced recession, but service reallocation for equity–in accordance to new Metro guidelines–does make the cut more palatable.

To defend his proposal, Dembowski evoked Metro’s precedent of reallocating service made available with light rail’s introduction to the neighboring communities to improve light rail access. The councilmember also made an equity claim of his own, highlighting the disadvantaged people in his own district that would be negatively impacted by removal of Route 41’s service hours.

There’s no doubt that disadvantaged and low-income communities reside in Dembowski’s constituent neighborhoods like Lake City, Pinehurst, and Northgate. However, as Council President Balducci pointed out they don’t negate the overwhelming concentration of poverty and diversity where some of the service hours could go in South King County. Metro’s equity analysis shows the greatest need there, and the agency’s new mobility framework strongly recommends investment of additional transit service into areas with a high density of disadvantaged populations.

A joint letter by the Metro Mobility Equity Cabinet, Transportation Choices Coalition, and other transportation and equity-minded organizations called for the new framework to guide the transportation investments, and showed strong concern for Dembowski’s proposal. When it became clear that the proposal didn’t have enough support, it was replaced with a symbolic measure for a report on redeployment of Metro hours from North King County.

It’s unfortunate that the County currently doesn’t have the funding to both promote equity and maintain existing and strong connections for new light rail infrastructure. Hopefully, we’ll have the transportation dollars to do both when the next light rail expansions are completed in 2023 for East Link, and 2024 for Downtown Redmond, Lynnwood, and Federal Way.

Update: Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer shared a statement on why the reductions in North Seattle and reinvestment in South King were necessary.

“This is a rare opportunity where Metro could make a necessary reduction in service resources with minimal impact for customers, especially in the North Link project area that will see major service investment and mobility gains from Sound Transit’s Link extension, as well as Metro’s improved connections to all three stations,” Switzer said. “If this opportunity is not taken, Metro may need to make offsetting reductions in the system (including North King County possibly), or potentially face a much larger service funding gap in the future.”

The Northgate Link bus restructure will be implemented in September 2021, and redistribution of service hours will happen sometime after. The North Link Connections Mobility Project survey is still closed, but you can still check out the proposed changes to North Seattle’s bus networking.

Note that Metro’s latest restructure proposal was made without Prop 1 STBD-funded services that passed overwhelmingly earlier in November. Metro reports it’s now in discussion with SDOT to see if the City of Seattle elects for more bus connections between North Seattle and its future light rail stations in a final proposal. In other words, the transit connections in North Seattle could improve with Prop 1 investments.

Clarification: Not all of the hours shifted to South King County came from deleting the Route 41 so the headline has been revised to clarify that.

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Shaun Kuo is a junior editor at The Urbanist and a recent graduate from the UW's Jackson School. He is a Seattle native that has lived in Wallingford, Northgate, and Lake Forest Park. He enjoys exploring the city by bus and foot.

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” connections between the Northgate Transit Center and its surrounding neighborhoods would decrease from pre-pandemic service levels.”

They would decrease from *current* service levels. Even with the pandemic cutbacks, the 41 runs more often than the new 75. Add to that the loss along Northgate Way, and it is a significant reduction for a neighborhood (Lake City) with plenty of low income people, and plenty of services for low income people. It will be harder (much harder) for them to get to Northgate than it is now, if the current plan is implemented.

I’m OK with looking at changes from an equity standpoint, but this fails to do that. This is just a knee-jerk reaction, which assumes that all of the poor people live in the south end. There are ways this can be done, but it requires:

1) That you measure the needs of each community accurately. I see no evidence of this. For example, averages don’t matter. It doesn’t matter how many rich people are in the neighborhood — what matters is how many poor people are (if your goal is to serve poor people).

2) The routes are effective at serving those in need. It isn’t enough that a route comes within a mile of someone who is struggling to make ends meet. What matters is if they can be served by the improvement in bus service. Density matters, as does the network. A bus that goes from Lake City to Northgate is short, and would serve a lot of struggling people for very little money. In general, most of the low income people in a neighborhood like Lake City live close to the bus lines. That isn’t the case in the south end. There are a lot of people who live in remote places. Even the trailer parks tend to be difficult to serve.

If the goal is to move service from well-to-do folks to those struggling, than why move service from Lake City? That makes no sense. You would be better off moving service from say, Magnolia, Medina or Mercer Island.

Furthermore, if we are going to focus on serving low income residents, than that should include the restructure for Northgate. A lot of money is going into creating one-seat rides to First Hill and South Lake Union. That’s pretty much the only improvement from Metro. But those trips are only during rush hour, and only peak direction (to downtown in the morning, away from downtown in the evening). If your goal is to serve people who don’t have cars, that is a terrible way to do it. The folks without cars disproportionately work odd hours. They don’t all work downtown — they often work in service jobs spread out in the region. Not only that, but they need the bus to get around even when they aren’t working. If run through an equity lens, the Northgate changes would come out poorly.

In contrast, the 61 looks good. It runs all day, connecting various north end neighborhoods. It doubles the frequency for Northgate to Lake City travel. It dramatically improves travel in the north end, to places like Greenwood and Crown Hill. The same is true for trips that require a transfer, like Aurora or Phinney Ridge. That is where a lot of the service jobs are — things like restaurant work. Not to mention people headed to Lake City — like someone who lives on Aurora who needs to visit a clinic at Northgate or Lake City.

The current plan stinks. It fails by every measure — including equity.