Community Transit is preparing to shift buses that go to the University of Washington in Seattle to connect with Link light rail in Northgate next month. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Community Transit is preparing to shift buses that go to the University of Washington in Seattle to connect with Link light rail in Northgate next month. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Faster trips, more service in store for Community Transit

The agency is reallocating 4,000 service hours that will be saved by ending commuter routes at Northgate.

Some of Community Transit’s busiest bus routes will be a little shorter in just a few weeks.

Starting Oct. 2, Sound Transit light rail’s Northgate station is set to open. The terminal will let a swarm of Community Transit buses stop there instead of venturing farther south into Seattle.

“It gets us out of the business of being stuck in traffic on I-5 or busy Seattle streets,” said Roland Behee, Community Transit director of planning and development.

Northgate light rail is the first major shift in the agency’s six-year development plan, with service increases, new routes, an envisioned study of zero-emission vehicles and an experiment with on-demand transit.

Once the Northgate light rail station opens, Community Transit’s 800-series routes and the 511, 512 and 513 buses will end there.

All of that saved time — about 4,000 service hours — is being reallocated to improve frequency for those routes to better align with the light rail schedule.

“We wanted to make sure people had a bus ready and waiting to take them home,” Behee said.

Those and other commuter routes saw the largest ridership losses last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, with some falling by around 90%.

But sales tax receipts from the past year weren’t as low, and ridership recovery has not been as slow as initially feared. Instead, the Snohomish County transit agency is preparing for 30% increases over the next six years.

“What really marks this update is we have, we believe, a clearer picture moving forward,” Behee said. “Happily, it is that the economic impacts are not as great.”

Sales tax comprises the bulk of Community Transit’s general fund revenue, with fares chipping in around $23 million in the year before the pandemic. Ridership on the commuter routes has regained about 70% since the end of last year.

Even with some uncertainty around the delta variant of the coronavirus, Community Transit buses are regaining ridership, especially in the past few months. Despite the shift for some people to remote work over the past 18 months, Behee and transit leaders aren’t seeing it become permanent for their customers.

“We’re seeing the same things you are — that traffic levels are starting to look a lot more like pre-pandemic,” Behee said.

A focus for Community Transit in coming years will be education around the new cleaning and safety procedures on buses. Last year, the coaches were upgraded with extra filtration systems; riders must wear masks to board; and regular disinfectant is misted inside each bus when it’s out of service.

But Behee said the agency is still learning how to make riders feel safe enough to return and gain new customers.

When they do return, they’ll have expanded and faster service.

The Swift Blue bus rapid transit line that generally runs along Highway 99 is set to extend to North 185th Street in Shoreline. That’s the location of a light rail station that will open in 2024 as part of the Lynnwood Link extension in 2024.

By then, the Swift Orange bus rapid transit line will start service between Mill Creek and Lynnwood. Nearly 18,000 people per day are estimated to use light rail at the Lynnwood City Center station, which is currently called the Lynnwood Transit Center.

But the transit center’s projected 1,900 parking spaces won’t accommodate all of them. Community Transit wants its Orange bus rapid transit line to help connect people to light rail.

Early planning is to start next year on the Swift Gold bus rapid transit line between Everett and Smokey Point, which could open in 2027.

The current connections, the 201 and 202 routes, operate on a half-hour basis, so there’s usually a bus every 15 minutes. Swift Gold buses are expected to come about every 10 minutes to each station on weekdays, with a potential for more frequency. Bus traffic could be smoother through signal priority, queue jumps and some dedicated lanes. But the details are to be confirmed through the scoping study next year.

Within the next several years, Community Transit leaders could begin replacing the fleet’s diesel and hybrid-diesel buses, likely with battery or hydrogen-fuel vehicles. First, a study of needs and capacity, as well as expense, will help define the options for the agency.

“It lines up well with our goals around environment, climate and sustainability,” Behee said. He noted that the prior strategy had been for Community Transit to wait for the technology to develop and to be implemented in enough transit areas to better evaluate their use throughout Snohomish County. “We have a very large, diverse service area.”

Next year, people around Alderwood mall and Lynnwood City Center will have an alternative transit service. Community Transit is using a $1 million federal grant to try on-demand “microtransit.”

What that microtransit program looks like is still being decided.

If the pilot project is considered successful, Community Transit leaders could keep it or implement it in other locations.

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