SDOT Proposes Route 20 to Improve Northgate Restructure and Boosts West Seattle Service with Prop 1 Revenue

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RapidRide C hasn't been as rapid since the viaduct came down, and the West Seattle Bridge was closed for emergency repairs in March 2020. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

Last week, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) shared planned September service changes to the City’s bus network once the new Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) kicks in later this year. The biggest change is the addition of new Route 20 running from Lake City to Northgate Station and then south to University District Station, primarily using Route 26’s path.

Seattle voters approved the new STBD by a margin of over 60 points, increasing the current STBD’s 0.1% sales tax to 0.15%. However, due to threat at the time that I-976 would survive a court challenge (it didn’t), the old $60 vehicle license fee (VLF) was not included in the STBD and expired. Overall, funding from the STBD will decrease with the renewal, dropping from an annual $50 million to $39 million and forcing King County Metro to reduce service hours within Seattle. The City Council voted to add $20 VLF back in, but SDOT plans to invest the extra $7.2 million in annual revenue in primarily in infrastructure upgrades and maintenance rather than bus service.

SDOT categorizes their upcoming STBD services changes into three buckets: West Seattle emerging needs, Northgate link project area reinvestment, and service reductions. In the changes, West Seattle primarily seems service increases. Seattle north of the Lake Washington Ship Canal sees mostly service improvements, and its fair share of losses. The remainder of the reductions fall in band from Magnolia all the way east to the Central District, which have presumably seen the most ridership drops as the agency recalibrates the system to address pandemic realities.

Meeting West Seattle’s emerging needs

With the closure of the West Seattle High Rise Bridge over a year ago now, West Seattleites and the City have been scrambling to move Seattleites in and out of the peninsula and mitigate traffic impacts. One strategy under Reconnect West Seattle has been to encourage and improve bus ridership, a goal clearly reflected in the service adjustments these adjustments. The target originally was a 30% transit mode share during the bridge closure, but that has since been modified down to 25%.

A 25% goal for people on transit, up from 17% if no action was taken. (Credit: SDOT)
A 25% goal for people on transit, up from 17% if no action was taken. (Credit: SDOT)

With low bridge access restricted for the time being, it’s evident that demand for bus travel that utilizes that connection has increased in demand and will receive frequency boosts in September. Affected low bridge routes Route 50, Route 120, and RapidRide C Line. Route 60, which serves badly affected South Park and Georgetown, will also see a service increase.

  • Route 50 (Alki to SoDo via Admiral and Alaska Junction) — This route will see a doubling of frequency, from every 30 minutes to every 15 minutes on weekdays, 6am to 7pm. Just under half of the vested service hours (14,000) will go to bolstering this route.
  • Route 120 (Burien to Downtown Seattle via the low bridge) and RapidRide C Line (Fauntleroy to South Lake Union via Alaska Junction and low bridge) — These routes will receive similar slight service increases to help with crowding and expectations of high ridership post-Covid. Weekdays from 6am to 7pm, 7- to 12-minute headways will improve to every 7 to 10 minutes. Weekdays from 7pm to 9pm, 15- to 30-minute headways will improve to every 15 minutes. Around 9,000 additional service hours will be dedicated to these routes.
  • Route 60 (South Park to Capitol Hill via Georgetown) — This route will see a slight increase or doubling of frequency depending on time of day. On weekday from 6am to 7pm, headways will decrease from every 15 minutes to every 12 minutes. On weekdays from 7pm to 10pm, headways will halve from every 30 minutes to every 15 minutes. Around 7,000 annual service hours will be dedicated to this route.
Route 50 (Credit: SDOT)

The current plan is to spend around $1.5 million for the remainder of 2021 after September 1st, and around $5.9 million in 2022. This will support around an additional 30,000 annual service hours for West Seattle. No number appears for 2023, as SDOT notes that some kind of phase out of the added service house will happen around the uncertain reopening of the West Seattle High Rise Bridge — latest estimates have that around summer 2022.

Reinvesting and tweaking in North Seattle

Adjustments to service changes in the Northgate Link Project Area — basically most of Seattle above the Ship Canal — come with the context that Metro’s restructure planning assumed zero STBD-funded service. The Urbanist was critical of Metro’s chipping away at initial proposals — rest in peace Route 61, an east-west route we could never meet. September 2021 STBD adjustments offer to recapture some of our initial hopes. For now, the plan is to shift around 40,000 service hours in the area, around 26,000 reinvested and around 14,000 reduced as a part of “right sizing”. So, we’re looking at a modest roughly 12,000 hour boost to service hours to the project area. That might be enough to feel like a boost to riders. The bus restructure had aimed at improve connections to light rail and boosting bus service overall, but the shrinking budget is forestalling those bolder plans.

People hold on to the overhead handle on a standing room bus headed down Aurora.
The busy morning commute on Route 26 in Fremont pre-pandemic. Route 26 would be replaced by Route 20 under SDOT’s 2021 proposal. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

This bucket of changes holds the most exciting addition of service hours with an effectively new route. Route 20 is the combination of a restructured Route 26 and Northgate way service that might have been lost with Route 41’s elimination and Route 75’s move in September. It will run from Lake City to the University District via the Northgate Link station, and Green Lake. Route 20’s frequency on weekdays from 6am to 7pm, will double from every 30 minutes to every 15 minutes. Operating the route year-round will take around 10,800 service hours. When SDOT presented the proposal last week, the Transit Advisory Board was supportive of the Route 20 addition, Wes Mills reports.

The new route 20. (Credit: SDOT)
The new route 20. (Credit: SDOT)

Next, Routes 40, 48, 49, 65, and 67 will be getting hourly Night Owl service to restore cuts made to Night Owl service cut in September 2020 — Route 7 (notably outside of North Seattle) is also included as part of that service boost because it is paired and through-routed with the 49 at night. In all, that’s another roughly 3,900 annual service hours. Routes 40, 44, and 70 will have their off-peak headways smoothed to closely match peak frequencies. This maintains hours on routes with existing investments and is another additional 10,800 annual service hours.

As mentioned earlier, Route 41 is being cut with the introduction of the Northgate Link extension, freeing up 13,600 STBD-funded hours. In northern Seattle, reduced UW-maintained service levels during summer months when class is not in session — and reduced weekday — maintain service levels on secondary holidays to match normal weekdays — schedules are planned to be removed from Seattle routes. That frees up another 6,500 annual hours. Routes 43, 49, 62, 65, 345, and 373 will lose STBD-funded hours. The RapidRide D Line will also see adjustments.

Other service reductions and looking past these painful cuts

Some of the STBD-funded hours that SDOT is planning to allocate. (Credit: SDOT)
Some of the STBD-funded hours that SDOT is planning to allocate. (Credit: SDOT)

The RapidRide D Line’s adjustments are paired with planned cuts to the RapidRide C Line, though Metro is expected to pick up some of the slack from the decrease in STBD funding. The two routes cross paths downtown, so SDOT had considered merging the two routes into a through-routed line that flows right through downtown rather than terminating there. This change would have chopped off some service, most notably the RapidRide C Line’s South Lake Union connection, to save around 43,000 annual service hours. However, Mills reports this was scrapped since those Downtown RapidRide tails are expected to busy again once more workers are in the office rather than working from home.

Rapid C/D and circled are possible ends cut. (Credit: SDOT)
Rapid C/D and circled are possible ends cut. (Credit: SDOT)

Outside of northern Seattle, Routes 2, 3, 12, 24, and 125 will also have their remaining STBD-funded hours removed. Including the northern Seattle routes that will get similar cuts this totals up to be around another 12,900 annual service hours adjusted away.

When SDOT looks to reexamine the City’s bus network, life will probably look almost back to normal with the high bridge repaired and the pandemic mostly past us. The biggest difference might actually be the new Northgate Link extension and maybe even East Link. If I’m optimistic, maybe a countywide transportation benefit district will have been passed. Perhaps the West Seattle service increases might not even have to be pared back. Nevertheless, expect the next major service shake up to happen late 2022 or 2023 with the return of the high bridge, bus restructuring around East Link, and post-pandemic revenues.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that the through-routing proposal for RapidRide C and D is likely shelved and that Metro may supplement the lost STBD hours for the RapidRides. Also noted is the Transit Advisory Board’s support for Route 20.

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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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Jon Morgan

I see no reason why SDOT would be creating a new Route 20 to duplicate Link between Northgate and NE 45th Street, rather than creating the far superior Route 61. Greenwood and Lake City are two of the many neighborhoods that deserve and pay for Link service but aren’t getting it. We could at least provide them a frequent connection to Northgate. As close as they are, Greenwood and Northgate have no one-seat ride. That’s a greater need than duplicative service.

The proposal to shift Route 40–eliminate the long hook down College/Meridian and send it across Northgate Way to 5th Ave NE–would also save service hours and speed travel times, while adding transit to a segment of Northgate Way that has none.

Furthermore, the transit planning should be done at Metro, not SDOT. Just because SDOT wants to play transit doesn’t mean they know how.

Eric

Route 20 hardly “duplicates” Link. Just because it happens to stop at two non-consecutive Link stations doesn’t mean it serves the same set of riders or trips. That’s like saying Route 70 duplicates Link between the U District and Westlake, and is therefore superfluous. Not so!

I’ve attached a map of the relevant area, with half-mile radius circles marked around new Link stations. Most of the proposed Route 20 is outside these circles, meaning people who live near this bus route would need to walk pretty far to get to a Link station if this bus didn’t exist.

My understanding from reading these materials is that this Route 20 would replace the Route 26 that Metro proposed, would extend it to Lake City to replace their bus that Link is otherwise cancelling, and would also increase the frequency (from 30 minutes under Metro’s proposal to 15 minutes).

The frequency increase is likely the most expensive bit. To that I’ll point out that Metro’s own system evaluation lists routes that need additional service. The first priority for additional service is to add trips during peak periods where existing service regularly becomes overcrowded. The second priority is to add additional hours to ensure reliable scheduling. Metro has been able to address these top two items pretty consistently in recent years pre-COVID.

Beyond these top two items, the next priority is “service growth” (frequency improvements needed to better fit the demand on a corridor even if the bus isn’t currently packed to the gills or running late). Route 26 was identified as the highest-priority route in this category not just in 2020, but also in 2019 and 2018 and 2017 as well. During these years other routes listed as a lower priority have nonetheless received frequency improvements. In this case SDOT isn’t “playing transit planner,” they’re putting money into improving service where Metro’s own guidelines have said the need was greatest for several years.

Route 61 was a good idea. I supported it. I’d support a tax increase to make it happen. That doesn’t mean the improvements to the 26 turning it into this new Route 20 aren’t also a needed improvement.

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Wes M

I agree with Eric here. Route 61 would have been amazing. I wanted it very much. There’s still a chance it happens come March 2022 if sales tax receipts come up better than have been projected during the pandemic.

The problem with the 26 has long been as Eric describes: it is an infrequent, meandering route that is unreliable due to its length (remember, the 26 is paired with the 131/132 so that makes *both* the 26 and its pair unreliable if there’s a slowdown anywhere on the route). I live right on the 26 and rarely use it for those reasons. At least when I lived on the “sibling” 28, that route had the benefit of being a straight shot.

Axing the 26 going to downtown to increase its frequency, routing it through neighborhoods and expanding access to those Link stations, and keeping the path that would be unserved after pulling the 75 from there are all excellent things.

Remember that bus routes don’t just serve Link, Link stations serve bus routes. Having a frequent route that can pick people up from Link stations and deposit them at the places they want to go that are juuuuust a bit too far to walk is exactly the kind of route we need.

RossB

You are missing the point. The 61 would have been better than the 20 and cheaper to operate. So why switch from the 61 to 20?

Other than Link itself, the 61 would be the biggest improvement in the transit network for the north end. It would 45 minutes trips (like Lake City to Greenwood) take 20. Hour long trips like Lake City to Phinney Ridge or Licton Springs suddenly become manageable (as they should be, given the short distance). It would transform public transportation for the north end.

The 20 won’t. This zig-zags back and forth, making it slow and inefficient. It is largely a coverage bus, but with much better frequency. It gives the well-to-do home owners in Latona a very nice one seat ride to the U-District and Northgate (good for them) but that is about it. Consider the major destinations:

Green Lake to UW — The 45 is faster and goes by more people (not an easy trick). At best this doubles up coverage, but good luck timing the two together (seriously, good luck).

UW to North Seattle College or Northgate — This is where Jon is right. Link is better. This is likely the biggest connection on the whole thing, and Link is better.

Northgate to Lake City — Exactly the same as the 61.

Everything else is small potatoes and not worth the money. In contrast, consider what we are giving up with the elimination of the 26:

Stone Way to downtown — This is huge compared to every trip on the new 20, except maybe the one Link will do. This plan gets rid of the highest ridership part of the 26 (the lower part) and keeps the worst part.

It is a giant “screw you” to people who live north of Green Lake (on either side of the freeway). The 61 was better, without a doubt.

Eric

Look at it in the context of what Metro was going to provide on its own, plus the amount of service SDOT is able to fund on top of that.

SDOT isn’t paying for this whole route. The Northgate to U District part of this Route 20 was already going to exist as Route 26 with 30-minute service day and night, seven days a week. Most of Seattle’s contribution is going toward implementing the Lake City half of the 61. In the process they’re also putting a bit of cash into bumping up the weekday daytime frequency on the 26. That enhancement to the proposed 26 is much cheaper than adding a whole new frequent bus corridor from Northgate to Greenwood.

This Route 20 gives you most of the 61, from the Lake City terminus to 85th and Wallingford. If you’re going to Greenwood you’ll need to transfer to the 45. That’s of course not as good as a one-seat ride, but it’s still a transfer between two frequent routes on a reasonably direct path. That’s an improvement over how the current network makes you transfer in Shoreline to get from Lake City to Greenwood.

Chris Burke

I have the same question. Right now it seems my neighborhood, Olympic Hills, will be losing a LOT of bus service, with the 41 going away, and the 65 and 373 having cuts.

Wes M

One other thing to note is Metro is bringing back approximately 200,000 hours of service with the September service change. The cuts referred to in the presentation are cuts to Seattle’s funding of routes via the Seattle Transportation Benefit District. They’re not necessarily cuts that will stick once Metro makes its additions/subtractions/changes.

It is entirely possible that Metro keeps the same schedule (except for the additional peak-commute trips) or even slightly adds to it out of that 200,000-hour bucket.

Don’t stress too hard until we get to July and August when Metro rolls out its service proposals for comment.

Stephen Fesler
Owain

What exactly is being cut from the routes losing remaining STBD funded hours?