City weighs needs as 200 bus comes to end of the line
June 24, 2014
By Peter Clark
As Issaquah’s 200 “freebee” bus faces Metro Transit’s chopping block, city officials are evaluating alternatives.
After the failure of April’s Proposition 1, which would have given King County Metro Transit the necessary funds to avoid service cuts, the regional authority plans to begin phasing out 17 percent of its routes in September. The 200 is among those routes.
“Though it still serves riders, Route 200 is identified as among the lowest performing routes in Metro’s current system,” Metro Transit spokesman Jeff Switzer said.
The route averaged from 351 to 450 riders per weekday through 2012 and 2013, according to the 2013 Metro Transit Service Guideline Report. The bus averaged only 9.5 riders an hour during peak hours.
In seeking to reduce services, Metro Transit considered a route’s productivity and ability to meet a target based on the agency’s determination of social equity and geographic value.
City Economic Development Manager Andrea Lehner said the city still wants more information about who rides the route 200 and how much impact its dissolution would have on their lives.
“We were not sure the county had the most reliable data,” Lehner said, pointing out that the free fare of the bus could make it difficult to count the number of riders. “Which is why we performed our own survey.”
Through April and May, the city worked with the Issaquah Food & Clothing Bank and the Issaquah Valley Senior Center to distribute a survey and collect information about who used the 200 bus and why.
A bleak picture
Lehner said the need expressed by the answers gathered from the 214 responses painted a bleak picture.
“It’s not good — 56.3 percent said losing the 200 bus would have a severe impact on their life,” she said.
Only 10 percent of those who responded said they did not ride the 200 bus at all. The rest cited varied uses of the transit route for everything from trips to the grocery store to doctor visits.
“These are folks that have few other options,” Lehner said. “We haven’t really reached out before to hear their stories and their interests.”
She, along with other members of the inter-departmental Transportation Mobility Team, presented the findings to the City Council’s Infrastructure Committee during a special meeting June 16. Along with the survey results, those at the meeting also began to discuss alternatives.
“There’s really a wide universe of options we could consider,” Infrastructure Committee Chairman Joshua Schaer said. “Getting people where they need to go and pricing it right, these are really important to me.”
Options versus costs
Options include contracting a shuttle bus through Metro Transit, community vans, ride-sharing options and bike-sharing options.
The committee split on whether to focus on allowing for greater flexibility with an option like ride shares, or to provide the reliability that comes with fixed schedules.
“There’s definitely competing interests and concerns,” Schaer said, emphasizing that the committee understood the impact caused by the loss of the route. “The majority of our 200 users use it for really big necessities.”
Partnerships, either through public or private entities, are among the options considered by the administration. But before it can pursue any options, it needs a clearer view of the city’s priorities.
“Part of it is the council providing us some direction,” Lehner said, pointing out the relatively small number of survey respondents compared to the city’s population. “Who do we want to serve? This isn’t that representative of the whole city.”
She called the June 16 meeting the beginning of answering many questions.
“It was really just a starter conversation,” Lehner said.
Funding will take up a large part of that conversation.
“It’s going to be an issue of budget,” City Transportation Manager Gary Costa said. “It costs Metro Transit over $1.2 million to run the 200 bus.”
The city puts in about $50,000 annually as a fare box subsidy to Metro Transit to keep the bus free. Though the cutting of the route will make that $50,000 possibly available for other transportation options, the administration does not yet know if it will be enough to provide a solution for the 200 route riders.
“We don’t know for sure and we won’t know what we can do until we know what we can afford,” Costa said. “We just haven’t gotten there yet.”
No firm schedule
At this time, both Schear and Lehner said Metro Transit has not confirmed a schedule for when the 200 bus would cease running.
Despite the lack of a firm schedule, Costa says he’s expecting the route to end in just a few months.
“My understanding is that Metro Transit is planning to cut it in September of this year,” Costa said. “If something else happens, they might delay it.”
The administration’s task is made all the more difficult due to Metro Transit’s expected service cuts.
“Our biggest partner with this is Metro Transit,” Lehner said. “Bringing them to the table is not really possible because of all they are going through. Metro is working within a rapidly changing environment.”
With the information gained from the Infrastructure Committee, the Transportation Mobility Team will spend a few months researching the city’s alternatives for the 200 route.
“We will come back in the fall and hopefully have more of these options flushed out for them,” Lehner said.
She admitted exploring those options could run up against Metro Transit’s suspension of the route 200 bus.
“There’s a lot of concern about that,” she said. “Even if we had a solution right now, we would still need some partners to achieve that.”
Above everything else, she stressed the immediacy felt by the administration to survey the problem.
“We do take this very seriously,” Lehner said, commenting that the city’s investigation could lead to service disruption for many residents. “We’re working on it as hard as we can.”