A transit rider steps onto a Community Transit bus on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A transit rider steps onto a Community Transit bus on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Plan aims to restore ‘community’ to Community Transit bus service

Dropping commuter routes into Seattle next year will let the agency redeploy buses and drivers throughout the county.

Community Transit’s plan in the coming two years is set, and it’s squishy.

The support behind it, however, was resolute as the board of directors unanimously approved the plan last week.

Community Transit needs to be flexible to adjust to different dates for the start of light rail service to Lynnwood. Once the Sound Transit Link begins, the Snohomish County-based bus, paratransit and vanpool service will cease routing buses into Seattle.

Instead of duplicating the service, those hours and buses will be redeployed throughout the county to bolster frequency and coverage.

“If I were in one of my more cheeky moments, I would call it putting the community back in Community Transit rather than the commuter in commuter transit,” system planning manager Chris Simmons told the board last week.

The result is 35 routes, a dip from the 46 available today. Most of the decrease is from dropping the 400-series commuter routes into Seattle. Those will be replaced by express bus service that connects with light rail.

The service start date for the Lynnwood light rail extension — with stations in Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace and Shoreline — is subject to a decision by the Sound Transit board. Project delays for the East Link extension to Bellevue are bumping against the ability to operate at full capacity in Lynnwood next year as initially planned.

The three Sound Transit board members from Snohomish County have voiced support for opening Lynnwood first, even if its peak frequency is half of what was expected. But they’re in the minority on the board dominated by King County elected officials.

Community Transit wants to focus its network within the county with more routes getting 20- and 30-minute frequency or better and an express bus system that feeds into light rail for people wanting to reach Seattle and other parts south without driving.

It means more midday and evening service, all-day connections along I-5 between Lynnwood and Stanwood, a bolstered grid in Marysville, new routes in the Bothell, Martha Lake and Mill Creek areas, and redesigned routes in Edmonds, Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace to improve transit connections, Simmons said.

A full breakdown of the changes is available at communitytransit.org/transitchanges.

The change reflects the agency’s recognition that traffic patterns have shifted for many in Snohomish County who no longer go to work in Seattle every day. Instead of catering to those daily commuters, the plan hones in on serving intra-county trips for appointments, entertainment and shopping.

“The three-day workweek has taken hold,” CEO Ric Ilgenfritz told the board. “There’s no doubt in my mind that a paradigm shift has occurred.”

It comes on the heels of a 19% increase in boardings across Community Transit’s offerings last year compared to 2021, according to data presented to the board last week. The largest growth was in its bus service, which added more than 600,000 boardings.

While boardings plummeted in the early part of the pandemic in 2020, they have slowly rebounded. Commuter routes saw the biggest drop and the slowest recovery.

Ridership on local routes didn’t drop as much and recovery has been steady, especially the Swift bus rapid transit service that features high frequency, multiple doors to enter and exit, and off-board payment.

The agency estimates being a few more years away from returning to 2019 ridership levels, interim chief operating officer Roland Behee told the board.

Community Transit continues to plan for expanded service.

A third Swift bus rapid transit line between Mill Creek and Lynnwood is set to open early next year.

A fourth Swift service is planned through Arlington, Marysville and Everett with a goal to begin in 2027.

More service requires more drivers, mechanics and other operations employees. The agency added about 30 drivers this year to have 341 drivers as of early April, Ilgenfritz told the board. It puts Community Transit on track to have 370 drivers, its goal for planned service growth, by this fall, he said.

The added drivers include five who were “welcomed back” after the COVID-19 vaccine requirement was dropped, Ilgenfritz said.

No former mechanics had returned as of late last week, he said.

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