(Crowded RapidRide bus boarding downtown 11/20/12, photo courtesy Ben Blain)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“The change we did was big – probably too big.”
So acknowledged Metro Transit planning supervisor David Hull during this month’s West Seattle Crime Prevention Council meeting, which itself swerved back and forth along a list of topics that, too, was probably too big.
The change to which Hull referred was the September 29th Metro service change affecting numerous West Seattle routes, taking effect the same day as the launch of RapidRide C Line, replacing the 54/55 buses.
Metro’s received an earful and then some ever since, and is offering another chance tomorrow (Tuesday, November 27th) morning for West Seattle bus riders to sound off – at four stops along the RapidRide route, as detailed here.
At the WSCPC meeting, the changes’ effects on public safety – on board the buses, at the stations, along the roads with more buses and new features such as curb bulbs – were supposed to be the subject. But some attendees brought up gripes about reduced or changed service, too.
In the end, much was vented, little solved – but the venting itself might lead to something down the road. Metro reps again noted that some tweaks were in the works, likely for the February service change.
Ahead, what came up, what was said, and what’s next:
(Foreground from left, Metro’s David Hull, KC Executive’s transportation adviser Chris Arkills, SDOT’s Christine Alar, WSCPC president Richard Miller)
WSCPC president Richard Miller asked first why there was no clarity about Westwood being transformed into a major transit center as service changes proceeded. Reminders of that transformation will be evident again in two weeks, as the county is scheduled to resume work on projects related to the busy Route 120 bus line, including a curb bulb at 26th and Barton.
It was clear in the outreach process for RapidRide, dating back to 2008, contended Hull and County Executive’s Office transportation-policy adviser Chris Arkills, with the reminder that at one point the C Line was envisioned as ending at the Fauntleroy ferry dock, but was extended to Westwood after public input (here’s our January 2008 story).
Dot Beard, past WSCPC president, then brought in the concerns about transit cuts in Arbor Heights. Arkills addressed that, acknowledging it was a tough decision but they needed to cover as much as they could with what resources they had. While Arbor Heights had 4 1/2 percent of the ridership, its loop covered 18 percent of Route 21, he explained. He said something that had been mentioned at the Sustainable West Seattle Transportation Forum (WSB coverage here) – that some changes are being pondered for Arbor Heights, though not restoring it to its previous service level.
“There are a lot of competing needs,” Arkills said.
WSCPC president Miller pressed the point that while individual route concerns were discussed, there was no big-picture discussion that multiple routes were going to go to Westwood. He also said curb bulbs weren’t needed; Arkills disagreed, saying that Route 120 needs to make a connection there because of the grocery store available at Westwood Village.
Miller then brought up the topic of dozens of buses daily on his street. Metro’s David Hull then explained that Rapid Ride is an extension of what was the 54, and that people want more transit, but the side effect of that means more buses, and they need places for layovers, so “when you are running frequent service … and we are operating in mixed traffic, we fight this bunching problem, anything from a driver being slower to a driver loading someone with a (mobility issue) … So you are seeing two problems with the C Line. We totally underestimated the number of riders.”
He brought up the data they used for planning, from spring 2011 … We’ve been out taking counts and we’re seeing a 30 percent increase in riders.” So, he said, “The service is being used, and the side effect is a lot more buses on Barton. … The changes are made to make service convenient. I will be the last person to say the service change has been 100 percent successful in West Seattle … that’s why we have been adding trips to (various routes), changing operational practices, trying to prevent the buses from bunching … I think it’s a real value for the community. But the side effect is, buses.”
Crime/safety questions then came up. West Seattle Junction entrepreneur Dave Montoure asked about how Metro deals with inebriates in bus shelters, and also whether their fare-enforcement personnel have any authority beyond fare enforcement.
Hull said the former issue is a “societal issue”; they’ve removed glass from shelters and removed shelters when they have become a problem. Metro now has 69 transit officers, but they cover the entire county. A transit officer who was on hand agreed that it may be the shelter design; if there is a Metro problem, he advised Montoure, call 206-296-3311 and tell them there’s a Metro-related problem – they can issue trespass notices, for one, he said. He added that “undercover cops (are) riding buses now and they’re very good at what they do,” plus they have specific investigators and “beat cops who are actually answering the radio.” At any one time during the day, 6 officers are on duty, and 2 at night, so they might not respond immediately to a non-emergency complaint but – “If you don’t call, they’ll NEVER come,” he said.
Regarding the fare enforcers – they can intervene if it’s a life-safety issue, he said, but otherwise, they’ll call transit police. “They don’t have arrest powers” – they are not commissioned officers – “but they’re pretty good at what they do,” he stressed.
SPD Officer Kiehn noted that Seattle officers cannot issue trespass notices at bus stops, though, since they have no cooperative “memorandum of understanding,” so for SPD to come out, some crime has to have been committed.
“I am an experiment,” declared at that point Deputy Bill Kennamer, who is the “first transit resource officer,” assigned from White Center through Seatac, Burien, and Skyway.
Drinking from an open container is against the law, it was clarified at that point – but SPD doesn’t have the power to ban somebody from the Metro system as a result; transit police do.
The discussion went back to transit service. “Could there be a shuttle bus” to the end of Arbor Heights, Dot Beard asked. Executive’s office rep Arkills said “it’s a resource issue … shuttles tend to be expensive and not very cost-effective.” But if they somehow get more transit funding, “then we might be able to take a look at restoring some of that service.” For now, though, with C Line and Route 120 buses “packed to the gills,” he said, “we have to make some tough decisions,” and Arbor Heights ridership had been fairly low, mostly concentrated in the peak hours.
Hull jumped in to say that as a transit planner, what happened wasn’t necessarily what he wanted to see happen, but “we were given direction … take 100,000 hours of underperforming transit service and move it to where (it could serve) more people.” He also talked about the distribution of service around the county, between urban and non-urban areas, and guidelines that were laid out; he noted that other low-ridership routes were cut outside West Seattle too. “I’d like to have a GROWING system,” he said, but “we’re collecting less revenue today than we were in 2008.”
He stressed that they’re “still working” on West Seattle. “We understand (the problems).”
One attendee said that people in Arbor Heights who are not paying less taxes will remember this when the next election comes around – in terms of the county leaders (the executive and councilmembers) who made decisions. Hull replied that the councilmembers had tough decisions to make, as did the executive. “Dow Constantine didn’t cause the recession,” he noted.
Sharonn Meeks of Fairmount, who often commutes by bus, then asked about safety on the C Line – saying she’d heard there would be 16 officers riding it, and she has yet to see any. “There IS open drinking on the C Line, they are at the intersection of Alaska and Fauntleroy no a daily basis, no one is paying their fare, they get in the back door, they ride downtown, they get back on the bus, no one has paid. When do we start collecting the fares?” In particular, she said, fares are not being paid downtown – “there’s nowhere to tap your card.”
Deputy Kennamer said “the grace period ended this week … they are enforcing through citations.” He said he thought the 16 fare-enforcement officers were for all the RapidRide lines, not just the C Line. “Two people, for 24 hours a day?” Meeks added with incredulity. “Yes,” he said.
“This is becoming a real safety issue,” she said, at least for the area where she rides. “I can assure you .. there seems to be an element of continued drinking at bus stops in The Junction and the two intersections with bus stops now … there doesn’t seem to be much engagement on how to deal with these people. They are not paying they are riding the bus I’ve seen it at 7 am, 9 am, 2 in the afternoon, 9 o’clock at night. … The larger the crowd gets, they mingle in and out.” She says a growing group of people seem to be using Alaska/Fauntleroy for this purpose.
Bus rider Diane Vincent said she had seen this flouting, too – mentioning someone she’d seen swinging a bottle of alcohol. Meeks said, “If you can’t pull some of the 69 officers you have, to handle this situation, we’re going to have a major situation in the Junction area.”
Arkills reiterated, “Any time you see this, you should always report it,” including reporting it to the driver, though he acknowledges “not all divers are going to be as responsible,” but “be as specific as possible,” including the bus’s specific number. He went on to say, “Fare enforcement is expensive to do … but if you are doing this repeatedly, you are going to get caught,” which, he said, happened recently to his wife when she forgot to swipe her card. It’s a penalty of more than $120. Meantime, he said, bus stops draw criminals because “they like to stay dry” like others. “We’re aware of a lot of these problems and trying to address them as best we can.”
Meeks noted she’s been riding buses regularly for a quarter-century and never had this problem before. Arkills then acknowledged that the overcrowding of buses has made it tough to address this problem. She also contended that Rapid Ride isn’t on the 10-to-15-minute schedule that was promised, asking if the system has enough new buses to do that. Hull said “we have more buses now assigned to the C Line than was anticipated … to achieve, depending on the window of time.” He says right now they have enough buses for 7-minute intervals, but the problem is “they are bunching up.” And he noted something that was announced recently, buses stationed to “fill in gaps.” Then he said the “transit-signal priority” that is not installed on the D Line would eventually help.
When Meeks brought it back to the safety issue – what steps would be taken to make bus riders feel safe, including downtown – Christine Alar from SDOT said they are working with businesses on 3rd Avenue to try to address safety issues and have some grant money next year to focus on that corridor.
An attendee then brought up the problem of buses holding up traffic when a stop at a bus bulb takes longer, such as someone putting a bike on the rack in front of the bus. “I’m really upset about blocking an entire lane … I would like Metro to put their bus stop back the way it was, not block traffic, because it hasn’t really achieved anything.” Overall, he says, “I think Metro is great,” but the bus-bulb backups are bugging him. He also wondered about the cost of the fancy new stations.
Hull mentioned that the federal government paid for the “capital elements” of RapidRide – the bus stops, etc. He then said he feels the same frustration about getting stuck behind a bus, but overall, they are trying to make transit more frequent and faster for people. They have taken steps to “reduce the dwell time” at stops, he said.
North Delridge resident Dorsol Plants asked how much is being spent to fix problems cropping up on new lines versus problems on older lines.
They are adjusting the “running times,” Hull said, to better reflect what’s become reality on certain legs of bus routes.
Patrick Baer, also from North Delridge, talked about the difficulty of getting to The Junction via Westwood – “it costs up to $5 to get to The Junction – I could walk there.” He said he’s glad he can afford the fares but he knows many can’t, and he wishes fares hadn’t been raised so frequently. Arkills said the county doesn’t like to raise fares but they need to try to support the service. “We are starting in January a Low-Income Task Force,” he said.
Baer also asked about intersections with uncontrolled left turns, which leads to lots of waiting. SDOT’s Alar said that plays into the signal-priority issue, which has to be “balanced” in some spots.
The attendee concerned about bus bulbs said he had video showing a bus going around a bus by using the center lane. “So are you just going to let buses keep blocking lanes?” he asked. At that point, other attendees said they would like to hear some of the other issues – so that proceeded.
Barbara Dobkin from White Center brought up the issue of paying 2 fare zones to go to Westwood Village from her area when in the north end a much longer distance is charged as one zone. Arkills said they are looking at eliminating or at least modifying the zone system for buses, realizing “it’s an inequity.” It’s on next year’s “work plan,” he says. She also expressed concerns about service cuts to White Center in general, particularly considering the community’s percentage of lower-income. “I don’t know why our community was cut off – we lost a lot of bus service in White Center.”
Then came the issue of information displays that are supposed to answer the question “when’s the next bus?”, which for C Line aren’t working right now. Hull mentioned they will be “piggybacking” on a new fiber-optic system that SPD will be using. RapidRide, he said, is an issue of all its components coming together – and some are missing, like transit-signal priority, as mentioned earlier. Arkills said they are working with One Bus Away – which contrary to common belief Metro does not run – to try to improve it.
Having listened to all that, Officer Kiehn observed that it seems to be a variety of issues, not one big case of “the whole system is shot.”
Arkills said there’s a process under way to survey West Seattle riders (as reported here).
Regarding security problems, they want to hear about problems in specific zones.
The big message was: Just keep reporting problems, challenges, concerns – that message was both spoken and implicit.
“The few minutes that you might wait behind a bus is not a lifetime – slow down and live a little,” suggested Betty Wiberg later.
The issue of Sound Transit 560 cutting off its West Seattle leg was also brought up, and defended by the public officials here. (They mentioned the alternatives such as taking 50 to the light-rail stations. 128 also goes to the airport, it was mentioned.)
If you have feedback for Metro – as we mentioned earlier, tomorrow (Tuesday, November 27) will see reps at four RapidRide station/stops in West Seattle – as explained here. Or, contact Metro via e-mail.
The West Seattle Crime Prevention Council meets the third Tuesday of most months, 7 pm at the Southwest Precinct. Next month, on January 15th, the topic will be safety/security in Seattle Public Schools.