It’s like an episode of America’s Next Top Model, just for Pierce County’s bus service.
Two plans stand before us, but only one can be Pierce County’s mass transit future.
As ace News Tribune transportation reporter Adam Lynn reported Monday, months of work — including what Pierce Transit describes as a “a comprehensive analysis of its existing bus service” — have resulted in competing versions of what changes to the agency’s operations throughout the county may look like.
Now it’s up to us to weigh in, and the Pierce Transit board to ultimately decide in December.
With 35,000 additional service hours budgeted to go into action in March, Pierce Transit hired consultants from Nelson-Nygaard to come up with a plan for how it’ll all work, and how those hours will get added.
Perhaps for dramatic purposes, the consultants came up with two.
Only one is really worth considering.
The first plan is straightforward. As Pierce Transit service planning manager Peter Stackpole put it to me, it “basically took the existing (route) system and added 35,000 hours to that — what that would get us.”
The result is obviously an improvement, but not exactly a transformative one — especially when it comes to the two things that the Pierce Transit board and citizens, through a coordinated public outreach effort, have identified as top priorities.
They want more frequent service, and extended hours of bus service, which currently ends at 7 p.m. on most Pierce Transit routes.
We get some frequency improvements on some urban routes. But it doesn’t give us enough to improve the span of service.
Pierce Transit service planning manager Peter Stackpole on the potential of adding the additional 35,000 service hours to the existing route system
“We get some frequency improvements on some urban routes,” Stackpole explains of the first option, which would increase the frequency of several existing routes. “But it doesn’t give us enough to improve the span of service.”
To increase frequency and actually improve the span of service — which is transit speak for finding a way to run important buses later into the night — the consultants have recommended a redesign of Pierce Transit’s route system. This change would mean doing away with some underperforming routes (meaning low ridership), and consolidating some redundant ones.
Chris Karnes, the Tacoma chair of Pierce Transit’s Community Transportation Advisory Group, explains the restructure would “would simplify service and reduce route duplication in order to emphasize better peak and midday service frequency.”
“Instead of hourly service, half-hour headways would be available roughly between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. and service span with half-hour to hourly headways thereafter would be extended to 10 p.m. on practically all routes in urban portions of Pierce County,” Karnes writes on the Tacoma Transit blog.
It’s worth noting that such a route restructure will not come without its drawbacks for some. For folks who rely on a route that will get the axe — a number of routes that Pierce Transit spokeswoman Rebecca Japhet describes as “minimal” — it will take some adjustment. Stackpole says they may have to walk slightly further to catch a bus, or alter their schedules.
As Stackpole says, “Certainly there will be some people who are going to be negatively impacted. Those riders don’t just exist on paper, they’re real people.” He tells me Pierce Transit hopes to hear from those who may be impacted by the proposed changes at a series of upcoming public forums.
Still, he believes the overall increase in route frequency should go a long way toward alleviating these concerns. He’s hopeful the “alternatives that are provided will be far better.”
Chris Karnes, the Tacoma chair of Pierce Transit’s Community Transportation Advisory Group, on the potential of a route redesign
“It's huge,” Karnes tells me of the potential redesign. “There's a host of benefits to the restructure. Salishan gets direct access to the Tacoma Mall via 38th Street, and 38th Street (would have) a connection to Tacoma Dome. Yakima Avenue, which has seen a lot of new residential development, (would have) 15-minute service. South Tacoma Way is connected with UW Tacoma.
“Tacoma Community College students who take the bus will be able to take night classes again and get home. People who work at the Tacoma Mall will be able to use transit, even if they work an evening shift. It'll be possible to take local transit to get home after arriving on an evening 594 bus or Sounder,” he continues. “Today you simply can't do that.”
Putting the decision in these relatable terms is when the choice becomes crystal clear.
“I think that would be great,” says Benjamin Feldbush, vice president of legislation and records for TCC’s associated student body.
As a newly elected representative for TCC’s students, the 37-year-old Feldbush, who one day hopes to earn a PhD in sociology, says he routinely hears concerns from those taking night classes about the lack of transportation options.
Some night classes, he tells me, don’t get out until 10 p.m. — long after the buses stop running. To cope, many students are forced to walk or bike long distances, or schedule rides that can be unpredictable.
“I know students who are in a night class, and that’s their issue,” Feldbush says. “They don’t have transportation when they’re done.
“If they had later-running buses, it would make things a whole a lot better.”
It certainly would, for many.