When the 139 bus pulled out of the Burien Transit Center last Thursday around 3 p.m. it was carrying one passenger. As the bus rumbled down Fourth Avenue SW, another rider boarded — a woman who was getting ready to move to the area from Florida.
The bus passed a worn sports field where kids kicked up dust as they played soccer, looped through the Highline Medical Center campus without picking up anyone, and then continued west on SW 160th Street, passing single family homes, with mowed lawns, flower bushes and driveways.
A total of five passengers rode the bus during its 4.5-mile route, which passes through Gregory Heights, a neighborhood in Burien located just west of the Seattle Tacoma International Airport. Ray Lugo boarded shortly after the bus turned onto 21st Avenue SW. He uses the 139 to commute. "If it wasn't for the bus, I wouldn't be able to get to work," he said. "I don't have a car."
Another rider, Nancy O'Reilly, got on board a few stops later as the bus continued north on 21st Avenue SW toward SW 152nd Street. O'Reilly said she and her neighbors in a senior community use the bus for trips to the grocery store and the medical center.
"No one on 21st can walk to stores or the doctor's," she said.
This fall, Lugo and O'Reilly will likely need to find a new way to get around. The 139 is on the chopping block. King County Metro Transit has identified the bus line as one of its lowest performing routes and the agency has proposed eliminating it in September as part of an effort to offset an ongoing budget shortfall of up to $75 million.
A Metro bus pulls away from the Burien Transit Center last Thursday. Photo: Bill Lucia
Metro has recommended to the Metropolitan King County Council a total reduction of 550,000 annual service hours to make up for the funding gap. King County Executive Dow Constantine recently sent a proposal to the council that would phase in the elimination of 72 bus routes and service revisions or reductions on another 84 lines over the course of a year. The first round of cuts would take place in September. Three additional rounds of service reductions would be scheduled for February, June and September of next year.
As the clock ticks toward September, elected officials are scrambling to put forth proposals that would stave off some of the service cuts, but a long-term solution to the agency's financial woes remains elusive.
"We’ve heard again that the proposed cuts will really have a devastating effect on people who rely on transit to get to work, to get to school and to get to the hospital," Rod Dembowski, chair of the County Council's transportation committee, said as he summed up comments made during a recent round of public meetings about the service reductions. "We’ve also heard that we should considering raising fares for those who can afford it."
In one of the latest moves to save bus service, Dembowski plans to introduce a motion at a transportation committee meeting on Tuesday that would call on Constantine to recommend a bus fare increase, the elimination of Metro's paper transfer system and new pricing models. He said those changes could enable Metro to generate between $17 million and $20 million in additional revenue annually.
He emphasized that some of the changes would not go into effect until after a low income fare reduction policy is put into place, which is set to happen next March.
The motion would also call for an outside auditor to conduct a top-to-bottom review of Metro's finances to look for $10 million to $20 million in new annual cost savings. Metro's capital spending and financial reserve policies would also be re-examined.
Metro officials say that in recent years they have made deep cuts and increased the agency's efficiency.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!