The 810 McCollum Park Community Transit bus at its new stop in the shadow of the newly opened Northgate light rail station in Seattle. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

The 810 McCollum Park Community Transit bus at its new stop in the shadow of the newly opened Northgate light rail station in Seattle. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Northgate light rail frees buses for Snohomish County routes

Community Transit is using the change to imagine service when light rail reaches Snohomish County.

When Rebecca Gourley saw her usual Community Transit 860 bus roll into the Mariner Park and Ridelast week, the digital message read “Northgate Station.”

Days earlier it had been “University of Washington.”

The former single bus ride from the Mariner Park and Ride south of Everett to the University of Washington in Seattle instead stopped at the new Northgate Link light rail station.

Staff from Community Transit, King County Metro and Sound Transit guided her and other passengers to the light rail platform and their stops, and answered riders’ questions.

“It was good,” said Gourley, 30. “I was really thankful for all the employees at the park and ride helping people figure out where they’re going.”

Not everyone found the switch as well publicized.

Elizabeth Bauerle, a University of Washington Medicine employee, told Community Transit leaders during the board meeting Thursday she heard from people who didn’t know their route was changing and were upset they weren’t better warned.

“Changing the routes should have been more prominently featured and more prominently outreached well before the opening,” Bauerle said.

But Community Transit CEO Ric Ilgenfritz said the change went well and staff had overplanned. He hadn’t heard of any missed trips, and staff were at Northgate and park and ride lots in Snohomish County to speak with riders before and during the first week.

“The highest priority for us was engaging with customers,” he said aboard an 810 bus trip to Northgate during an interview with The Daily Herald.

Before the station went online, the three transit agencies simulated peak service conditions to see how it worked. A couple things stood out for Community Transit needs, including signal priority for buses turning left from First Avenue NE into the dropoff lanes, and a slow light cycle at a signal near the Sound Transit garage. Both can be adjusted by the Seattle Department of Transportation.

Northgate represents a new southern end of the line for thousands of Community Transit passengers. The station plugs bus riders into a broad network independent of the whims of I-5 traffic. Light rail can take people to the U District, Husky Stadium, Capitol Hill, downtown Seattle, the International District, Lumen Field and T-Mobile Park, and Sea-Tac International Airport.

Within a few years, that system will have stations in Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace, and a line east from Seattle to Bellevue. When the Lynnwood line opens, it will signal the end of hundreds of daily bus trips between Seattle and Snohomish County.

Instead, all of that service will be redeployed within Snohomish County, and the planning process just started, Ilgenfritz said.

“This really is a fantastic opportunity for us to test run bus-rail integration,” he said.

A Sound Transit double tall bus at its new stop in the shadow of the newly opened Northgate light rail station in Seattle. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

A Sound Transit double tall bus at its new stop in the shadow of the newly opened Northgate light rail station in Seattle. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Before light rail opened at Northgate, Community Transit’s 511, 512, 513 and 800-series routes ventured into Seattle, subject to the same forces that can turn a 28-mile trip to Everett into a 90-minute slog. Now they’ll save an estimated 4,000 service hours by stopping at Northgate and heading back to Snohomish County destinations.

Community Transit added 48 trips to the 800-series routes, enough to have a bus ready to pick up riders at Northgate when the light rail arrives. The added service has a bus every 15 minutes and cuts time between transfers for northbound passengers.

Ridership is projected to increase for Community Transit, despite losing some commuter passengers to light rail, because of added bus frequency, Ilgenfritz said.

“That’s the key to building and sustaining ridership,” he said.

With more bus drivers and vehicles available, the agency is considering express routes from places like Lake Stevens and Snohomish to light rail stations in the county. More bus service in Arlington and Marysville, where employment and population are likely to grow, could become feasible.

Not going into Seattle also cuts the average vehicle trip length for Community Transit, which has prompted the agency to evaluate zero-emission vehicles, such as battery electric and hydrogen fuel buses, to replace its diesel and hybrid diesel fleet.

But the shorter trip length has already affected Gourley’s commute. She used to listen to an audiobook or watch an episode of something on the ride that was just under an hour. Now the new stop disrupts that flow, but only for the time it takes her to walk up the stairs to board the light rail.

“I try to make the commute as productive as possible which isn’t possible if I’m driving,” Gourley said.

Riders transferring to light rail can tap their ORCA transit card, or buy a single pass at Northgate for between $2.25 and $3.50 based on where they get off. Using an ORCA card gives riders two hours to transfer.

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