With light rail ridership massively shifted from pre-pandemic trends, Sound Transit is announcing new initiatives including more and better security at its facilities including Capitol Hill Station and improved efforts to keep important but fragile infrastructure like its escalators functional and running.
The effort comes as a new survey shows just how much the public transit landscape has shifted in Seattle as the city’s wealthiest residents take on new work habits and its poorest have become the city’s biggest users of bus, streetcar, and light rail systems.
“The past few years haven’t always been easy for our riders, and we appreciate your patience,” Sound Transit CEO Julie Timm said in the announcement of the new initiatives announced this week. “We want you to know that we have heard your concerns and are taking steps to address them.”
New and increased security, better outreach through station agents, continued efforts to try to keep overworked escalators moving until they can be upgraded or replaced, and simple improvements like station trash cans are part of the plan.
The changes come as Seattle public transit ridership trends have clawed back to near pre-pandemic levels and officials are trying to hold the gains and scramble to catch back up with demand.
Across the light rail system, ridership remains a little more than 10% below its 2019 benchmarks, according to Sound Transit reporting.
At Capitol Hill Station, boardings hit a peak of 236,000 riders in October — that’s actually a slight jump from October 2019.
But there are new challenges as habits have seemingly permanently shifted. New survey findings from the Mobility Innovation Center at the University of Washington and Commute Seattle show that there has been a “reversal” in who rides public transit now in the city: “People who live in households that make below $90,000 are more likely to take transit than those who make over $90,000, a reversal from pre-pandemic,” the study’s authors report. According to the report, Seattle households earning $150,000 per year or more, are more likely to telework or have hybrid commute options.
CAPITOL HILL STATION BOARDINGS
At the top of Sound Transit’s list will be an increase and changes with the security teams that patrol the system and the addition of new station agents at Westlake and Northgate that could be also added to other facilities in the future:
Agents have already started working weekdays and we’re hiring more staff to cover weekends as soon as possible. We have had a Station Agent at our SeaTac/Airport station for several years and at Sounder stations since that service started in 2000. The station agents also provide another set of customer-focused eyes in the station so we can quickly respond to the needs of our riders. The pilot program provides an opportunity to evaluate how we may further expand their roles at other Link stations as the system continues to grow.
Sound Transit has also changed how it hires its security staff with newly approved agreements with four security contractors to provide civilian security officers at Sound Transit stations and on board its trains. Timm says the hiring and training process for the new contracts is underway and riders should start seeing “more security officers throughout our system in the coming months.”
“The benefit of having multiple vendors is that a single provider is not on the hook to provide the more than 300 security officers needed to be fully staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” Timm writes. “If one vendor is experiencing staffing challenges, then one of the other three providers can be tapped to rapidly fill that gap.”
In 2020, the Sound Transit board put new rules in place around its security and how it handled issues like fare evasion after surveys showed Black passengers were cited and punished disproportionately by the process.
The recovery for light rail has also come as the system has expanded with new stations opening in 2021 at Roosevelt and Northgate.
Ridership has also been softly impacted by changes that allow kids to ride free on all public transit.
Last year, meanwhile, brought a full overhaul of the ORCA transit card system that will eventually include tap payment by smartphone sometime starting this year.
And construction to enable the system’s expansion has also been a factor. Sound Transit has been busy with a series of “Future Ready” projects to prepare existing light rail facilities for upcoming expansion. CHS reported here on the new schedule for completion of the new line to the Eastside including a new station at Judkins Park now slated to open in winter 2024.
As part of the immediate new efforts, Sound Transit is also spending more to maintain and clean its stations and trains:
- New station cleaning protocols to provide more frequent power washing and new trash cans at the platform level of downtown Seattle tunnel stations.
- Partnering with King County Community Health Services to have crisis response teams on trains and checking downtown stations to help those who need to connect with resources.
- Testing new seating on 1 Line trains with more durable and easy-to-clean materials.
- Lighting improvements at Rainier Valley stations to replace original fixtures with new energy-saving LED lighting.
Other challenges will take longer to address. Timm said concerns around broken and unavailable escalators and elevators at its stations remains a priority but upgrading the system will take time. Sound Transit has just started a procurement process for “escalator equipment modernization” and the first installation won’t happen until early next year at the International District station, Timm said.
Capitol Hill Station, meanwhile, will also become more of a draw. New businesses and restaurants are set to open in the development above the busy light rail facility including the new Glo’s Diner set to open in coming weeks.
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I ride the train everyday and rarely anybody pays. Why should I pay if nobody else is? If they catch you, all you get is a warning anyway, just say “sorry I sit have my ID”.
Also so many people sleeping on the train- it’s clear sound transit doesn’t care- it wouldn’t take much for security to walk through each train as it stops.
People might stop smoking crack on the trains if they actually checked for fares anymore…until then free light rail for everyone!
I hate the fare police though. Use their salary to pay for the train. No brainer.
Should be free for all and hire more security.
Thats fine as long as everyone pays taxes to support the service. Unfortunately, Sound Transit’s model envisions fares paying a good portion of the debt accrued for the build out. Withoit those fares the whole system goes slowly broke. So, if you want free transit for the individual users someone has to pay. I would support broad based taxes to offset the loss of fares, but not another “tax the rich” proposal. Would a broad based tax like that gain support in our city?
That is the car tabs, or property tax bill. I wish I could charge my electric car for free. Maybe I can connect it to the light rail…
I’ve never thought of escalators as “fragile,” except for the ones in our rail stations. At airports, subways around the world, and even outdoor ones in hilly places they seem to be pretty robust. I would be interested to see uptime comparisons between Seattle’s escalator systems and those of say New York or Hong Kong.
Stop the drug users openly smoking fentanyl in broad daylight and that would be a big improvement too. It’s been a free for all. Drivers just make an announcement to put smoking materials away and nothing happens.
If they actually enforced fares people wouldn’t smoke or sleep on the trains…nobody cares so why should anybody pay?
“Continued efforts to try to keep overworked escalators moving until they can be upgraded or replaced.”
Seriously? I can see older stations like Westlake and the ID. But the fact that the Capitol Hill light rail station opened less than 10 years ago and the escalators are consistently inoperable (and now apparently need to be upgraded/replaced) speaks absolute volumes about Sound Transit as an organization. “Ride The Wave?” More like “Take The Stairs.”
Also, what’s up with the pigeon cage in the rafters at the Broadway and John entrance? Has anyone else noticed this?
My understanding is that the escalator replacement is only for the downtown tunnel stations and not Capitol Hill. The tunnel was owned by King County and its only been in the last year that ownership has been transferred over to Sound Transit. The escalator issues should of never happened but part of the issue has been deferred maintenance and the tunnel ownership issue. Now that the tunnel is owned and operated by sound transit, there should be improvement in upkeep.
The issue at other newer stations has been specifying medium duty escalators such as at Capitol Hill and the UW station but this has been changed for all new stations under construction. Does not help with existing escalators but there is a new escalator maintenance contract in place which theoretically should help speed up repairs and keep things moving.
So Sound Transit picked the wrong escalators to meet the demands of busy transit stations. I mean, it’s not like they could have done any peer system research to determine what escalators would have been appropriate to meet projected demands at the newer stations, such as Capitol Hill. Oh, that’s right. They could have.
My understanding is they thought they could get away with slightly less expensive escalators for UW and Capitol Hill because they were mostly indoors, but that clearly was a mistake.
The pigeon traps are to trap the pigeons that like to hide inside the warmer station. They have attracted other birds like a Coopers Hawk that got stuck inside the station and needed rescuing.
So fare enforcemnet, keeping junkies from smoking meth and fentynal on board and general safety of riders is considered too mean and not equitible or something, right?