First Hill mixes busy workplaces like Swedish Medical's Nordstrom Tower in the distance and dense multi-family housing. Credit: Rob Ketcherside/Flickr
Residents of First Hill — home to medical institutions, colleges and universities, food banks and high end residential-living facilities — are on edge. Proposed cuts to Metro bus service, say those who work and live here, would undermine transit mobility and delay plans for a 21st century city, perhaps by decades.
Visit Skyline, a retirement community with a view on this hill, and you'll hear some of the reasons why. Hollis and Katherine Williams moved to Seattle from Everett over a decade ago. She no longer drives after being in a car accident and relies on buses. He grew up in the other Washington and understands the merits of a strong subway system.
They rely on Metro routes 3, 4 and 60 to get around. All three bus routes could be eliminated or reduced. If Metro is forced to cut service by 17 percent, an estimate of the possible reductions developed a while ago, 74 routes could be eliminated and 107 reduced or revised. Hollis Williams says the bus system needs to be expanded not reduced. “I can walk one block, two directions, and get a bus just about anywhere in the city and I'm usually able to get a seat on it,” he says. “If the 4 goes away, the 3 would serve, but it would be so crowded I'd have to wait for another bus and hope I could get on.” He's had to do that at times already because of high ridership from residents, workers and patients at Harborview and customers at the Cherry Street Food Bank.
“It seems there's a schizophrenic public policy in promoting bicycles and better mass transit service over cars,” says Williams, “”because at the same time they're going to reduce the bus system and make us rely on cars with fewer lanes in which to drive and no places to park.” A new code was established for developers, says fellow Skyline resident Max Braun. “Each apartment has 7/10ths of a parking space no matter how many people live in it. So they're cramming people into this place at the same time they're not including adequate parking for cars.”
Tom Gibbs, another resident at Skyline, was Metro's executive first director back in the 1970s. At the time, the city of Seattle had its own bus system, with the oldest fleet in the nation, says Gibbs. "The new service gave mobility to people who had not been able to get around the community or the region. I got lots of letters and phone calls saying really well done." If we don't pass the transit-and-roads funding measure, King County Proposition 1, says Gibbs, the system is going to be decimated.
These pro-Prop I seniors who rely on bus service for visiting friends, doctor visits, volunteer activities and a ball game, are also worried about the mobility of the workers who serve them, particularly First Hill's large medical community. An estimated 15,000 people, nurses, doctors, engineers, cooks,administrative personnel, work at one of three medical institutions, Harborview, Swedish and Virginia Mason.
Shannon Gray is an admitting clerk at Virginia Mason who relies on transit. In a few months, she's moving to Des Moines. She thinks she'll save about $500 a month on rent. "I really can't let that pass me by. But I don't mind saying I'm more than a little nervous at this point.” Buses are already overcrowded, she observes, and they don't always stop for someone with a disability. "I'm just going to have to schedule it so that I can leave very early so I leave no room for error so I'm not late for work. But I'm nervous about it for sure.”
Seventy-five percent of Virginia Mason Hospital and Medical Center's 5,600 employees take alternative transportation, says Brenna Davis, the organization's director of sustainability. Some have extended shifts and work 12 hours. They may start at 7 a.m. and end at 7 p.m. “That could affect their ability to get to and from work,” says Davis, “since Metro is talking about eliminating late night and early morning routes.” Virginia Mason doesn't have recent stats for how many patients or visitors rely on bus service but Davis says many patients are elderly or disabled. Buses are their lifelines. “And when you think that two-thirds of the region's air pollution problems are related to tail pipe emissions according to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, that's another example of more single occupancy vehicles on the road and less people on buses," she says. "You can only project what that could do to the region's air quality."
“Going backwards at this point is not really a viable option," Davis says. "Our region has really been working hard to improve our environmental footprint, improve healthcare and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, reducing single occupancy vehicles will keep us track.”
Move King County Now, the pro-Prop 1 campaign, says if voter turnout follows the traditional curve, between 30 and 34 percent of voters will cast a ballot this April. Or it could be a few percentage points higher, says campaign director, April Putney. She is hoping that a reasonable share of the turnout could be among the transit riders who use the bus to get to work. Forty-three percent of downtown Seattle workers use Metro, as do 17 percent of those who work in Bellevue. Whether they vote, says Putney, may depend on whether they realize bus cuts are imminent.
Families for Sustainable Transit, the main anti-Prop 1 campaign group, did not return a request for comment by deadline. Their website says they're supported by the Eastside Transportation Association, Bellevue Chamber of Commerce, the King County Republican Party and a host of District Republican organizations. The website, bathed in green, asks such pointed questions as, “Can you trust King County officials will not take your money and cut bus service anyway? And why burden working families with a new $60 car tab fee and increased sales tax?"
Those are questions everyone who casts a ballot may find themselves asking. On First Hill, a lot of people who know how they will vote are already wondering how the electorate's decision will affect them.