A red and gold RapidRIde bus waits an a bus shelter with the sign indicating it's headed to Federal Way Transit Center.
The A Line is the backbone of South King County's transit network until Federal Way Link arrives in 2026. (King County Metro)

King County Metro has started the first phase of its bus restructure planning process centered around Federal Way Link. Opening in sometime in 2026, the extension will add about 7.8 miles of light rail between SeaTac and Federal Way and three stations. Metro’s restructure would support connections to the service, which could be an improvement for some riders over mid-range distances compared to local bus service.

Metro’s initial project phase doesn’t involve a restructure concept. Instead, planners have outlined a study area where the agency might propose network changes. Planners are also seeking feedback from riders about their needs, preferences, and transit service use.

In terms of the study area, Metro is looking at a wide swath of peak and local bus routes stretching from Federal Way and Auburn to Burien and Tukwila. The selected routes essentially intersect with one of the Link stations between Tukwila International Boulevard and Federal Way Downtown stations or provide express to Seattle. This includes the RapidRide A Line and Routes 156, 162, 165, 177, 181, 182, 183, 187, 193, 631, 901, and 903 as well as suspended express Routes 121, 122, 123, 154, 157, 178, 179, 190, and 197.

A Metro study area map shows routes to be evaluated for changes in the bus restructure process. (King County)

In addition to Metro, other bus service to area stations is provided by Sound Transit with a mix of all-day and peak-hour ST Express routes. That encompasses Routes 560, 574, 577, 578, and 586. A restructure to those routes will also certainly happen with the possibility of other South End express service, such as Routes 590, 592, 595, and 594 originating in Tacoma and suburban Pierce County but not stopping in South King County.

How a restructure of express and regional bus service is accomplished between both transit agencies will be of significant importance to South End transit riders. That’s because Link service is sluggish over long distances, making buses more competitive in some circumstances.

Travel times to Westlake Station in Downtown Seattle are expected to top 57 minutes from Federal Way during all hours on Link. A comparable express trip on Route 578 during peak hours is 45 minutes and just 33 minutes during off-peak periods. As Link is extended further south to Tacoma, the competitiveness of Link over express bus service is expected to further worsen despite I-5 congestion.

The fact that so many of Metro’s express routes to Seattle remain suspended makes South King suburbs feel much further away by transit. Metro and Sound Transit are positioned to determine the regional strategy to move people quickly over longer distances, perhaps by augmenting Link with strategic express bus routes between select destinations with all-day frequent service.

As for local bus service, changes may be more straightforward by untangling “milk run” routes and making select changes on some routes to better serve Link stations. Within the study area, most bus routes do already serve transit centers and park-and-rides at the existing and planned stations. Restored and added service hours to be identified in the study area could also be an opportunity to also improve the local bus network, but that hasn’t always successfully happened in recent Link and RapidRide bus restructures even with additional resources. Nevertheless, Metro believes that there are about 81,000 annual service hours currently in suspension for the area that could eventually be restored.

To improve the restructure process, Metro might be wise to consider a slight expansion of the study by increasing the number of routes under review for changes, particularly in Kent and Auburn, so that changes are well coordinated in the patchy South End service area.

The Federal Way Link Extension will add three stations to the 1 Line when it opens in 2026. (Sound Transit)

Had construction gone to plan, Metro would have started this bus restructure process more than a year ago. But the Federal Way Link Extension hasn’t gone so well and faced repeated delays. The latest delay has come from soil conditions in a ravine near S 259th Place in Kent. Engineers failed to design bridge spans through the ravine that properly accounted for the poor soils, forcing them to redesign the segment with a longer bridge span. That has pushed back opening of the extension from December 2024 to sometime around April 2026, according to Sound Transit’s latest agency progress report.

For now, Metro plans to work on the bus restructure through summer 2025. A second phase will involve release of service concepts late this fall or early this winter. And a final service proposal will be released in summer 2025. In the meantime, riders can join for one of three community engagement events in April and May or weigh in on a survey by May 10. Riders can also apply to join the Mobility Board in order to advise Metro.

Article Author

Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.