Swift Orange Line planned 2024 route. (Community Transit)

Swift Orange Line planned 2024 route. (Community Transit)

Editorial: The future’s riding on wheels of a bus

Innovation and investment in a new bus rapid transit route and electric buses can get us where we’re going.

By The Herald Editorial Board

A lot is now riding on four (or six) wheels.

To be specific, that’s the four wheels on two fleets of public transit buses — six for the larger articulated buses — operated in Snohomish County by Community Transit and by Everett Transit.

For more than a century the bus has been seen as the plodding workhorse of public transportation, taking children to school, workers to jobs and retired folks on daily errands. Reliable, usually, but also slow by design, making stops every several blocks to allow riders on and off as they make their way. And certainly not the sleek, faster transit modes such as bullet trains and commuter and light rail or the convenience and comfort of personal — and usually solitary — vehicles.

Buses are down there with bicycles and shoe leather in terms of being seen as a preferred way of getting around for many.

But that’s changing — and has been for more than a decade in the county — as drivers have been frustrated by congestion on interstates and arterials and are coming to the growing realization of the reality of climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions — not to mention the spiraling cost of gas — that have many considering alternatives to driving themselves everywhere for everything.

Innovation and investment now are making the bus a far more attractive and consequential mode of transporation. For proof of those advances and their potential, consider the Lynnwood gathering for Tuesday’s groundbreaking of Community Transit’s new Swift Orange line, the transit agency’s third line of rapid transit bus service in the county.

While ground-breaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies attract elected and other officials like wildebeest to watering holes, this event was notable for the collection of those gathered. You couldn’t swing a ribbon-bedecked shovel without hitting a Biden administration transit official, two U.S. senators, two U.S. House members, a governor, numerous state lawmakers, mayors, city council members and, of course, members of the press. (Legal disclaimer: Don’t swing shovels at officials.)

That level of interest is owed to what the Orange line — like the Blue and Green lines before it — represents: As described by Community Transit Chief Executive Ric Ilgenfritz, it’s 11 miles, 13 stops and 15 buses offering service 10 minutes apart between the McCollum Park Park-and-Ride and Edmonds College, with a connection at Lynnwood City Center to Sound Transit’s Link light rail service, both scheduled to begin service in 2024.

And for many there to toss dirt, it’s about the connections the new BRT line can offer, and what those connections mean for the regional and state economy, for a cleaner and more affordable mode of transportation, reduced congestion and less pollution for everyone.

“Because once you get on a bus, on a train you can access anywhere you need to go and anywhere you need to be,” said Nuria Fernadez, administrator for the Federal Transit Administration.

“This means one less worry for that single mom working here in Lynnwood, working long shifts who can depend on good public transit getting her where she needs to go,” seconded Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “That young person who does not have a car and needs to get to a job across town. … This is about building a stronger, connected economy and community.”

For Gov. Jay Inslee, it’s about a better environment and the jobs created to meet that goal: “We are building clean energy jobs. The thing about fighting climate change is you don’t do it just by wishes and dreams and hopes and aspirations; you do it by putting people to work.”

It’s about preparing for growth, noted Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., and Sen. Maria Cantwell, who pointed to the county’s 37 percent growth in population in the past 20 years and expectations for 1 million residents in the county by 2040.

“We are building the infrastructure for the next 50 years, not the last 50 years,” DelBene said. “And we have the opportunity to think about how people move and get around.”

And it’s about the county serving as a model for the rest of the state, said state Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, chairman of the Senate’s transportation committee and a leader behind the $16.8 billion transportation package — which included funding for Community Transit — passed this spring.

The package, “Move Ahead Washington is not about pouring more concrete and creating more lanes,” Liias said. “it’s about moving more people and more goods more efficiently and with fewer emissions. And Snohomish County is doing that every day, and this project is example A.”

At the same time, innovation and investment continue for Everett Transit and its links to Community Transit and other transportation hubs, Everett Station and Paine Field’s passenger terminal among them.

Everett Transit, while offering those connections, also is serving as a leader in the transition to fully electric service, with the goal of running all electric buses by 2028, as described earlier this year by its director Tom Hingson, during a ride on an electric Everett Transit bus with Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash.

Everett Transit currently has an electric fleet of 10 buses and is awaiting arrival for 10 more, eventually reaching a fleet of 40 electric buses.

“What I’m really excited about is that when we finally get our next 10 electric buses we can finally retire four of our oldest diesel buses that are 20 or more years old,” Hingson said over the bus’ electric whine, meaning passengers getting off the bus or waiting for the next won’t be breathing in a cloud of diesel exhaust as the bus pulls away.

At the same time, there are other investments in equipment and software to efficiently run the electric buses, including drive-over charging plates that will make charging quicker and easier for buses that have proved since 2018 they can run a full eight-hour day between charging.

As more commuters look for better and cleaner transportation options, the promise of electric buses can change old perceptions of bus transit, as will Community Transit’s bus rapid transit lines — with further expansion planned in coming years, north to Arlington and Stanwood and east to Highway 9 and Cathcart Way.

With so much riding on those wheels, we need to get on board.

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