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Proposal to boost transit includes plan for privately operated bus routes in Seattle

Stutter Bus

With reporting from SCC Insight

Along with Mayor Jenny Durkan’s push to put ORCA cards in the pockets of more Seattle students, legislation to change Seattle’s flush with cash Transportation Benefits District in front of the City Council Monday afternoon will also set the city up for a counter-punchline to those “Uber just invented the bus” jokes — privately operated bus routes in the city. UPDATE: Delayed! Committee chair Mike O’Brien has pushed a vote on the legislation back two weeks to pound out issues around the private operator plan.

CB 119256 will set up funding to power the Mayor’s ORCA Opportunity program to provide the passes to Seattle Public School students at no charge at a cost of about $4 million per year. But, if approved Monday afternoon, another part of the $11.5 million annual boost in transportation spending from new sales tax and vehicle license fees implemented in 2014 would go to a limited private bus system.

UPDATE 6/25/2018: As the Council prepares to approved the rest of the bill, the plan for the private bus system funding is being cut:

With King County Metro currently at capacity during peak hours and constrained by the number of buses it owns as well as the number of drivers it has to operate them, Seattle’s new plan for quick service growth is to contract with a private company to run special bus service along routes selected by City Hall.

Based on survey data, city planners have identified common point-to-point commute routes that Seattle residents make, as well as common routes that feed people to light rail and Rapid Ride stations. The privately operated buses would help cover those, relieving some capacity for existing bus routes, and hopefully eliminating some bus transfers downtown to reduce the number of people whose commute takes them through the most congested part of the city.

Here are the routes they have been considering as the legislation has taken shape:

The data showed that Uptown and First Hill were two popular end-points for single-occupancy-vehicle commutes from the north end. Also, there are a lot of people driving from Alki to South Lake Union, currently top priorities for adding bus routes. In the south end of the city, the contracted bus routes would be focused on getting people to and from light rail and Rapid Ride stations.

The bill also relaxes the rules as to which Metro lines benefits district funds can be used to expand service on, and allows for greater investment in capital projects to improve transportation system efficiency.

Between the ORCA program and the other changes to the benefit district spending, Seattle is looking at an additional $11.5 million per year starting in 2019. The Seattle Transportation Benefit District has the money. It has been running a surplus the past few years and carried a fund balance of $27 million into 2018.

There are still several issues to be worked out, including finding companies to operate the service, determining the size of the buses, negotiating labor agreements, establishing fares, and integrating into the ORCA pass system. Also, the council amended the mayor’s proposal, placing a $5 million limit on the funds that could be used for the privately-contracted bus service, and putting a proviso on rolling out the service until the council passes a separate ordinance allowing it — which gives the council a chance to personally approve SDOT’s solutions to all of the outstanding issues.

The melding of public transportation services and private providers isn’t new from Seattle’s floating bike share providers to the rapid growth of Uber, Lyft, and others. Last year, Metro began experimenting with allowing corporate shuttles carrying Microsoft employees to utilize its Capitol Hill bus stops.

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