County plans to cut bus service, explore alternatives

Some of Vashon’s lesser-used bus trips may be cancelled as soon as next year under a King County plan to replace bus service in less populated areas with more cost-effective transportation such as shuttles or carpools.

The plan, which identifies Vashon as one of three sites for pilot projects, was forwarded to the King County Council for approval last week.

“It’s really thinking outside the box of a big bus driving down the highway delivering people where they want to go,” said Joe McDermott, who represents Vashon on the county council. “It’s a real opportunity for Vashon to be a trailblazer in the county for how we might do this.”

Tim Johnson, who chairs the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council, however, said he was troubled by the lack of public input into the formation of the plan and questioned whether it would work on the Island.

“I have a hard time envisioning something that would cost less and get people where they’re going,” Johnson said. “The alternatives sound nice, but I just don’t think it’s feasible.”

The plan is being driven by Metro’s ongoing financial woes. Matt Hansen, who heads the county project, said the transit agency is looking to cut its budget in anticipation of a $60 million shortfall next year, mostly due to falling revenue from the sales tax.

Last year the county council approved a two-year $20 license tab renewal fee that sustained Metro service through next summer. But unless the state Legislature finds a way to fill the deficit when the fee expires, Hansen said, the transit agency will be forced to cut the equivalent of 600,000 service hours county-wide.

If cuts are required, the changes will come first to Vashon, the Snoqualmie Valley and Southeast King County, the three rural areas selected for a pilot project. The county will start the process by exploring the elimination of bus trips in the three areas that have the lowest ridership, those in the bottom 25 percent county-wide. On Vashon, those include early morning, mid-day and evening trips on routes 118 and 119.

In its 70-page report, the county suggested several ways to meet a community’s transportation needs if bus trips are cut and promised community participation will factor into those discussions. For instance, Vanpools, or county-sponsored carpools in Metro vans, are already in use all over the county. A shuttle subsidized by the county and operated by a local organization could fill in when buses don’t serve. And the county’s Dial-a-Ride Transit vans could serve regular routes and be booked for trips in advance.

More unorthodox options in the report include bike renting, car sharing and contracting with school buses to transport adults as well.

“We’re not going to leave people without service,” Hansen said. “It might look different, and we hope it will cost less, but they won’t be left with nothing.”

Hansen said the county would determine what options worked best for Vashon through a public feedback process that would likely include multiple public meetings.

“If your trip is to get you to a ferry terminal during commute hours, maybe we do something different with a fleet of vans,” he said.

Hansen said that just because a bus trip has low ridership doesn’t mean it will be cut. He also said the county wouldn’t cut runs if there was significant resistance from Vashon residents.

“The plan proposes a process, rather than a table for saying, ‘This route here,’” Hansen said. “Metro always has a list of the bottom 25 percent performing routes, and there will always be a compelling reason to not have some of those services eliminated.”

About a year ago the county approved the creation of a five-year plan to implement alternative transportation. Metro is now waiting on the county council to approve Metro’s proposed process for identifying and implementing the bus alternatives.

According to Metro’s plan, submitted to the council last Friday, the agency held several meetings at the beginning of the year to inform and get feedback from representatives of those who may be affected by the new plan. A list of 80 so-called stakeholders the county reached out to included city public works directors, social services providers and representatives of schools and large employers such as Boeing. Vashon, however, was not represented at any of the meetings.

VMICC’s Johnson is listed as a stakeholder for Vashon, but he said he was never invited to the meetings and hadn’t even heard of the plan until contacted by The Beachcomber.

“That is news to me,” he said of the stakeholder meetings.

Rochelle Ogershok, a communications specialist with the county’s Department of Transportation, said Johnson should have received multiple emails about the meetings. Johnson said he received a Metro email thanking stakeholders for their involvement but nothing prior to that.

Johnson said he was most concerned that there seemed to have been very little communication with Vashon residents about a plan that could significantly alter Metro service on the Island. He said the situation reminded him of the recent installation of rumble strips on Vashon Highway, a decision made by the county with little to no communication with Islanders.

“I can’t speak for everybody, but the vast majority of people I talk to feel like they’re being ruled by an absentee landlord who makes decisions that affect you,” he said.

In April, a large group of county staff came to Vashon to present the new Community Service Area (CSA) program — a program to engage citizens of unincorporated King County and replace the community council model. At the meeting, staff also gave information on several current and upcoming county projects on the Island. The rumble strip project wasn’t mentioned, Johnson said, and neither was the alternative transportation plan, although both were well under way. The transportation plan was listed briefly in a 16-page document handed out at the meeting.

“It seems like the CSA meeting ended up being more about glad-handing and talking about the future than it was actually using the opportunity to inform people,” Johnson said.

McDermott, however, said he was happy with Metro’s process in crafting the plan. He said the point of the plan is to involve the public when it’s time to decide on alternatives.

“We’re just beginning the process. We haven’t made decisions about how to provide service on the Island,” he said. “You bet we’re going to be on the Island talking to a bunch of stakeholders, the community council, healthcare providers, churches, employers, schools.”

McDermott noted that a couple evening trips on Vashon’s line 118 were recently cut. Under the new county plan, he said, something would have replaced those trips.

“This is a chance to have a conversation that’s different than just cuts,” he said.

Johnson said he was looking forward to learning more about the county’s plan but had a hard time imagining how the proposed alternatives would take the place of bus trips on Vashon.

“I’m willing to be convinced, but I don’t see it,” he said. “My guess is a lot of the alternatives they talk about aren’t really feasible for Vashon. I’m getting the sense that this is a cut. People are going to have to find another way to get where they’re going or ride an earlier route.”

Hansen, meanwhile, said he hoped Vashon residents would be open to trying less-traditional ways of getting around.

“I’m expecting people on Vashon might kind of run with this,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to do something different and creative. We could do something that no one else does nationwide and if works for (the Vashon) community, yippee.”

The King County Council is expected to vote on the plan late this summer.


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