Pierce Transit will add dozens more early morning trips to its crippled system Monday morning in an effort to get workers to their jobs on time and students to class without being late.
Many riders complained about spotty service, late buses and inconvenient schedules after an explosion and fire halted refueling at the agency's Lakewood headquarters.
The added runs are in response to those concerns, said interim public relations officer Jessyn Farrell.
“We really heard our customers loud and clear that people need those early trips, so we really made those a priority,” she added.
The emergency weekday schedule now includes service as early as 4:17 a.m. on the No. 1 as it leaves the Tacoma Community College transit center. Runs begin between 4:30 a.m. and about 6:45 a.m. on other routes across the system.
Transit officials don’t know how long the modified schedule might last, Farrell said.
The cause of the Feb. 28 explosion hasn’t been pinpointed and remains under investigation, though fire officials did not rule it an arson.
The agency brought in a natural gas refueling expert to assess the damage and give advice on how it might proceed.
“He’ll be able to give us much more on how long it’s going to take and how much it’s going to cost,” Farrell said.
The accident occurred when tanks used to compress the natural gas that fuels the buses exploded inside a metal shed, sending a fireball into the sky near South 96th Street and South Tacoma Way.
It left the agency scrambling to refuel its buses at a Port of Seattle facility and other stations and disrupted ridership from one end of the system to the other.
“There are a lot of people who are inconvenienced by this,” Pierce Transit spokesman Lind Simonsen said. “They’re asking, ‘Where’s my bus? What’s going on?’ Once you go into a disaster like this, you do what you can to get the service back.”
Buses on most of the system’s 52 routes went to Saturday schedules, which meant runs began later and came and went less frequently than on weekdays.
Pierce Transit handed out fliers at bus centers, took out ads in the newspaper and put Rider Alerts on its website to let passengers know of the changes and apologize for inconveniences.
But the later start times wreaked havoc with workers and students trying to get to jobs and classes on time, many riders said.
Some complained the agency wasn’t nimble enough in its response; others praised it for listening and changing plans to accommodate people.
Shawn Knau of Parkland didn’t have any issues getting where he needed to go, but he worried last week about people who were having trouble getting to their jobs on time.
“They’re in the transportation business. Why would you not schedule buses for people to get to work in the morning?” he said.
Pierce College student Richard Mulligan called The News Tribune to complain when Pierce Transit announced plans that would disrupt service to his campus. He called Pierce Transit too.
And over last weekend, agency officials got back to him, saying they would solve the problem.
“They rounded up something to run back and forth to the school,” he said, praising the agency’s response.
Tacoma schools officials dispatched recorded telephone messages to students’ homes to remind people of the disrupted schedules. Students who use Pierce Transit buses to get around were told that their tardiness would be excused but that they’d have to make up any work they missed.
School of the Arts students who needed to get to class by 8:30 a.m. found their buses didn’t even start running until 7:50 a.m., Tacoma School District spokesman Dan Voelpel said.
Overall, the district issues bus passes to around 1,000 students, he added.
Officials don’t keep track of which students use them, so they didn’t know precisely how many were late due to the ripple effect of the natural gas refueling station accident, Voelpel said. But they do know around 140 out-of-district kids depend on Pierce Transit to get to SOTA classes and some 40 Science and Math Institute students ride the bus to classes at Point Defiance.
Parents “were encouraged to find alternate” ways to get to school, Voelpel said.
TCC student Abby Lundgren, 22, said Friday that she’d been late to class a few times shortly after the schedules changed, but it appeared to her that many of the initial problems were being corrected.
Lawrence Farwell, 22, agreed, though he added, “It’s still hard to remember the Saturday schedule.” And with more people crowding onto fewer buses during the day, “it gets a little hectic at times,” he said.
The agency has worked hard to stabilize the system and make arrangements for consistent refueling of buses, Farrell said.
“We are just so appreciative that people are willing to stick with us and be able to work with us,” she said.
Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659