ORIGINAL REPORT, 11:46 PM MONDAY: While we upload video and put together the full story, we did want to share a few toplines from tonight’s well-attended Sustainable West Seattle Community Forum, focused on transportation.
We estimate around 60 people filled the upstairs hall at the Senior Center of West Seattle, surprising one panelist, City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, who had brought only 20 copies of a handout he wanted to circulate. Though the panel was prepared to discuss a wide range of transportation topics, the Metro changes/RapidRide C Line debut dominated, and when one attendee asked everyone from Arbor Heights to stand up, that covered about half the room. Metro planner Victor Obeso acknowledged the transition had been rocky and when asked by one attendee to apologize, did so. Later he also confirmed they expect to make some changes to address problems like Arbor Heights’ dramatic reduction in service, and that they are trying to get the RapidRide service to the promised 10-minute spacing, rather than multiple buses in a row after longer gaps. The forum ran the full two hours, and we have it all on video:
ADDED 6:57 AM TUESDAY: Video added. Text to come later
this morning today.
ADDED 6:40 PM: Our full story, after the jump:
Despite the rain and the traffic, more than 50 people filled the seats at the Senior Center of West Seattle last night for Sustainable West Seattle’s transportation forum.
Though it was originally pitched as an opportunity to talk about a variety of transportation/transit topics, it quickly became almost entirely about the Metro changes launched concurrently 2 1/2 weeks ago with the start of RapidRide C Line replacing the 54/55 bus line. That’s been the most-discussed topic here on WSB – as one panelist even noted – these past few weeks.
If you don’t want to watch the entire 2-hour video clip above – here’s how it went:
SDOT‘s Peter Hahn started off talking about the coal-train controversy, saying the city is talking with the port. He then noted that the city doesn’t have enough money to handle the maintenance needs of the roads and facilities it has. He did mention they had just opened bids for the South Delridge repaving project and “we have some pretty good bids.” (Hahn did not elaborate.) He then rattled off some of the recent paving projects completed in West Seattle. As for the remaining unrepaired section of Beach Drive, with “legal issues (that) appear to be getting resolved,” he reiterated that when the slide repairs are complete, some “spot repairs” will be done on the road in that area. He also noted that SDOT worked with the county in planning the changes along the RapidRide C Line route, “because bus rapid transit isn’t so rapid” without changes.
In the future, he said, SDOT “may be asked to participate in another rapid transit round,” but that will take a long time, Hahn noted, observing that Sound Transit was voted on in 1996 but didn’t open light rail till 2009.
Metro planner Victor Obeso was next to speak. “We’ve just made the most comprehensive and significant changes that we have ever made in a service change before,” he said, acknowledging that meant “upheaval” for some transit riders. He says that while there was an “investment” made in Metro service because of Alaskan Way Viaduct construction-related mitigation money, most of it was made last year, and that’s why increases in service weren’t seen with these changes.
He mentioned 22 percent ridership increase to and from West Seattle between spring of 2009 and spring of 2012. (Here are the stats Metro shared with WSB recently.) During that same time, he said, Metro ridership overall grew 6 percent.
Then he recapped the King County Council’s imposition of the “congestion-reduction charge,” and warns that financial trouble may still lie ahead; they have had to make efficiency improvement, he said, and that is part of what went into the West Seattle changes. “We were looking at the places that were not carrying as many (passengers) as the others.” He says the intent for RapidRide is to be a seven-day-a-week 20-hour-a-day frequent-transit corridor. “We recognize that many of the problems that have been occurring are occurring in the peak commute periods.”
Making a big change brought in “several dynamics,” Obeso continued, and noted that they had asked riders to be patient. “We know it takes a while for our riders to understand what all their options may be,” he said. He said Metro “fully recognize(s)” it was “not a pleasant scene” in the early days of RapidRide in West Seattle. “Within the first week we were putting in place two standby coaches, adding more peak trips, and by Monday of last week we had permanently added two buses to the RapidRide (C and D Line).” That uses up 25 percent of their “reserves,” he said, though some reserves remain for “additional adjustments” if needed. Overall, Metro believes things have “smoothed out” but “we know it can better” and they know they “may have to add additional trips” – on RR, or “a route like 55.” He says they are still collecting data on the route, and the buses are 25 percent fuller than they were last spring, and they believe that means there’s been a ridership bump.
Third to speak was Chris Arkills, a West Seattleite who works on transportation issues for King County Executive Dow Constantine. “I have been passed by a 120 or a RapidRide that was too full to load me … so I share your frustration and your pain,”he said, but “every day we learn to make the system better.” He said, “It was a huge learning curve for all of us” – despite training, “until you get into the real world, you don’t know what’s going to happen.” He insists that Metro – contrary to criticism – does care about its riders though their task “becomes more challenging every day.” His job, as had been explained in the beginning, is to look ahead to the future and new options.
He notes that the city has decided to give money to speed up Sound Transit studies of getting light rail to Ballard, but not to West Seattle, because it’s going to be more difficult to get light rail here. “We look at RapidRide as a good intermediate step.” He reiterates that Route 120 remains a top candidate for future RapidRide conversion. “Executive Constantine is very concerned about both the bus changes and the long range future and is working on another Sound Transit package” for the future, he summarized.
City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen followed. He too is a West Seattleite and chairs the council’s Transportation Committee right now. He recapped the unsuccessful push for voter approval of a $60 license-tab fee last year to fund more transportation projects. He explained that’s one of the few options the city has for seeking funding. He too spoke to the $20 fee for Metro – saying it only has a two-year authorization, and if it goes away, the funding goes away, so “we are going back to Olympia to ask for another way to fund Metro.” He also pointed out that he is affected by the recent changes in a big way – Route 37 served his neighborhood south of Alki. He also talked about transit being such an important topic that it brought more comments on WSB than anything but snowstorms.
Rasmussen also spoke to the Beach Drive slide problem and a host of other traffic and parking issues, including a parking study now under way in The Triangle. And he wrapped up his opening remarks by saying that he was amazed at the turnout – probably 60 or so people by the time he finished speaking – he brought a handout but only about 20 copies because he didn’t expect so many people! (Earlier, he had called attention to the fact that here on WSB, the transit situation had become the single-most-commented-on issue, outside of major news stories like snowstorms.)
Also on the panel, Martin Duke of the Seattle Transit Blog. He said that he’s 36 years old and expects to be able to retire in 2044 or so but isn’t very hopeful there’ll be light rail in this area by then. He says he also was disappointed by the defeat of the roads/transit measure.
First question was from Jon Grant, who, as reported here, launched a petition last week (here) to bring back Route 21 service to Arbor Heights. “There is no bus service to get home from this meeting tonight.” He handed comments and signatures, printed out, to the panel. He says RapidRide is great but he gets to SW Barton “and that’s as far as I can get … there’s no way for us to get to the transit hub.” He said he is worried about safety walking from the nearest bus stop later in the fall and winter – especially considering Arbor Heights’ lack of sidewalks in many areas. “Hopefully there’s some room in that area to reinstate some of that service.”
The second question from Steve – standing with several people at the back of the room – who also remarked on all the WSB comments but said he had written letters and many had commented but there was no response. He remarked on “Metro’s failing on the implementation of this admittedly huge transition but … your lack of response … your silence is what’s really frustrated.” He said, “We would appreciate an apology – (such as) ‘we’re sorry, we didn’t plan as well as we should have, we’re doing what we can’ …” He said, “We’re hearing one now, but we didn’t hear one for 10 days.”
Victor Obeso offered that apology.
Obeso said he “appreciated Steve’s comments … I am truly sorry that those changes have not gone as we planned … I think that we have made some efforts at communication over that time, trying to balance communicating with information over communicating without information.” He says they are trying to determine the difference between problems in the design and problems with for example the demand – which, he said again, was a surprise to Metro. “We’re making the best of the resources we have and working hard to try to correct (the early problems).” Steve followed up by saying that he thought Metro should participate in online discussion more frequently.
Councilmember Rasmussen rose at that point and said he wanted to hear if anyone ever wrote the city and did not get a reply – if that happens, he said, let him know.
A woman who also identified herself as being from Arbor Heights said she too had gathered petition signatures – almost 90 – and she lives all the way south at 112th and would have to walk half an hour to or from a bus. “Even if that’s just two or three people a day, that’s real people. Seems a shame to cut service so severely in that neighborhood.”
And the next woman too was from Arbor Heights – she asked everyone from AH to stand up, and it appeared to be close to half those in attendance.
Rebecca spoke next, a Lowman Beach-area resident who talked about the Water Taxi and its shuttle drivers, who, she says, wait between boat runs. “Can we incorporate those little shuttles to broaden the (bus) service?” And another woman jumped in from the audience to say that if it were easier to get to the Water Taxi dock, more would use it.
Arkills, noting that the Water Taxi is not a Metro service, picked up the answer. He said the boats and shuttles have to work together – “the boats don’t leave till the shuttles are there, the shuttles don’t leave until the boats are there.” He said they looked at trying to use the parking area under the bridge, but it was too tight an area for the shuttles to turn. Arkills added that the Water Taxi “has its own funding challenges.” And he said it is not as well-utilized as it could be. Meantime, “every community in the county is clamoring for more transit service,” he added. “We have to balance a lot of competing needs.” He said he thought the “mix in Arbor Heights” could be improved on, though.
Seattle Transit Blog’s Duke at that point posed a question to Arbor Heights attendees, engaging them on ideas for improving even limited service, and some ideas were offered – Grant explained it wasn’t the distance as much as the danger in AH without sidewalks. “What are you gonna do about those sidewalks?” county rep Arkills joked to city rep Rasmussen at that point.
Then Marty from Fauntleroy spoke up and talked about pothole problems and streets that have been torn up by utility work over and over. He talked about a challenge his son faces getting to a high school outside West Seattle – doubling the trip to 90 minutes instead of 45. “One thing the transit planners forgot are all the people who make connections – they didn’t change the connections,” they just changed the way people were getting on them. He told the tangled tale of how his son and their visiting exchange student had to change routines and make some contorted maneuvers just to get between points.
The next question came from another Fauntleroy resident who pointed out that many stops were taken away in the 54 to RapidRide changeover – like one at Cloverdale (on Fauntleroy) that she would like to see returned.
Wolf from Fauntleroy, a former SWS vice president, also talked about how dramatically his commute time had changed, up to 2 hours to get home. “That’s killer, I can’t do that.”
The next speaker said the bus schedule didn’t match what was really happening, and that a driver was very rude to her. Arkills said it’s important to make sure that is reported. She said she had been a fulltime Metro rider for 25 years, even gave up her car 4 years ago, but if she stays downtown beyond 6:40, she ma be “signing up for a mile and a half walk home.”
An Arbor Heights woman said the changes are a hardship for her mom.
Next – someone from Admiral pointing out the service they lost in the recent changes. Her husband works regular business hours, she says, “so the 56 works for him both directions” – but for her, after 9 am, there are no more buses, and that is difficult because she works three part time jobs, including one downtown where she is on her feet all day. She also suggested that the Water Taxi make more runs when the Viaduct is closed. She also said it seemed as if RapidRide had taken money away from other neighborhoods. Obeso said that’s not true – the service has just been moved to major arterials “rather than spreading it to the neighborhoods.”
“Admiral has no service, Arbor Heights has no service, the 51 is cut out, what neighborhoods have service?”” someone asked.
The Admiral resident said she will be driving and parking in front of somebody’s house in the winter when it’s cold and dark so she can catch a bus that she used to be able to walk safely to.
Gatewood resident Andy then spoke up and said he is one of the few for whom service probably got better. He said what he was hearing sounded like an opportunity for the circulator buses that Sustainable West Seattle had discussed in the past. “One of those small shuttle buses could run through every 15 minutes -” “Every hour!” someone interjected. “Every half-hour!” said someone else.
Obeso then said “We would rather be adding service than moving it around … (but) we don’t have the resources to do that. The challenge I’ve been given is have more people use our transit system without having more resources to put out new services, to reorganize the services we have. It’s a significant callenge. But I believe we would be putting more people on buses if we had buses to put them on.”Circulators still cost money and need drivers, he said.
He was then asked why Route 133, which was “packed,” was cut. Obeso countered that it cost almost twice what other buses cost, per person, and did not carry full loads all the time – averaging 17 people, he said.
SWS past president Bill Reiswig then talked about traveling in other countries and seeing small buses “that were absolutely everywhere” in non-automobile-centric societies.
Obeso’s reply boiled down to “costs what we don’t have.”
Duke then jumped in and said that he thought Metro’s development of “frequent corridors” like RapidRide was moving in that direction.
Morgan Community Association president Deb Barker, describing herself as a retired land-use planner, asked if there is any way to get impact fees (though she didn’t use that phrase) from all the developments in the works that will be adding more people to roads and transit – or other ways to get funding.”
SDOT’s Hahn said he has worked in places that had those kinds of fees, and that there is a “huge long history” behind why the city does not have such fees. But he said the city does get benefits from some things that developments have to do – it’s just not a simple calculation. “It’s probably something that’s been talked about over the years and there’s probably good reasons why it hasn’t been done, but it’s not like developments get away for free.”
Rasmussen said employers are encouraged to pay for bus passes and other “trip-reduction” measures.
Cindi Barker, also from Morgan Junction, said that maybe private companies like taxi services could be brought into a circulation system of some sort. King County’s Arkills said that they are always interested in city-county partnerships, and they are indeed looking at alternative service deliveries.
Ben from Morgan Junction said he’s glad to be on the corridor but his travel time has indeed increased. He’s been a transit rider for 12 years but it’s hard to advocate in front of his friends because of the capacity problem: “Over-full buses are a big problem.” Obeso said they are continuing to work on the 10-minute spacing rather than “two at once.” He said that while some wish RR had schedules, its lack of schedules enables them to make changes when needed. Buses off-schedule create those crowding conditions, he acknowledged.
Also noted in the event’s waning moments: The publicly accessible bus-tracking programs are not working for West Seattleites right now.
And moderator Redmond asked the last big question, wondering why RapidRide was even rolled out for Ballard (D Line) when, unlike West Seattle, most of the infrastructure was not in place. Obeso didn’t have a clear answer except that they roll out service changes three times a year and basically had to decide go or no go – and they decided go. Overall, he said, RapidRide is a gradual improvement – and, “A year from now, I hope to hear that RapidRide is working better.” He said the county was getting some comments from those who are happy with it, and said that people who are not upset “are generally not motivated to come to a meeting on a rainy Monday night.”
That’s when he said they would look at “ways to give you [Arbor Heights in particular] more than you have today.”