When the RFA is RIP
Social service providers worry about the human cost of switching from free bus rides to shuttles
Harborview, Mary’s Place, Urban Rest Stop, Virginia Mason: Metro’s new free, downtown shuttle, set to start up October 1, will ferry low-income riders to these and other destinations outside of Ride Free Area (RFA) boundaries.
And while advocates for the poor and homeless are happy for the service, they have concerns the shuttle won’t meet the needs of low-income people.
Alison Eisinger, executive director of Seattle-King County Committee to End Homelessness, said Metro and city officials were tremendously supportive in working with advocates to create the free shuttle as it prepares to begin. But it’s still not a completely adequate response, she said.
The RFA ends Saturday., Sept. 29. The following Monday, Oct. 1, free shuttle service will begin.
The new shuttle is part of a mitigation plan to offset any effects poor or low-income riders may experience due to the RFA’s demise.
The first shuttle vehicle leaves Ninth and Alder, near Harborview Medical Center. From there, the one-way shuttle travels west on Yesler Way and turns north on First Avenue.
Then it takes a small dogleg into Belltown before heading east on Virginia Street. At Boren Avenue, the shuttle heads south to return to its initial stop near Harborview.
The shuttle will make seven stops along its one-way, clockwise route, with a vehicle arriving at each of the stops approximately every 30 minutes.
The first shuttle leaves Ninth and Alder at 7 a.m. The day’s last shuttle departs from the same location at 4 p.m. Service runs Monday through Friday.
Eisenger said the shuttle system should be made more robust with additional days and hours. “Poverty, physical disabilities and homelessness don’t take evenings and weekends off,” she said.
Each shuttle stop will be marked with a 3-inch by 3-inch sticker bearing the logo of Solid Ground, a local nonprofit that will supply shuttle drivers. The seven shuttle stops are also Metro bus stops.
Shuttles are handicap accessible and will also feature a Solid Ground logo.
Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary’s Place, a nonprofit serving homeless women and their children, wrote in an email she felt grateful the shuttle will have a stop at Ninth and Virginia, near her agency. “We are the lucky ones,” she wrote.
Such luck, she added, could be limited: The shuttle fleet will consist of only two vehicles, one that holds 19 passengers, another that holds 23.
Hartman wrote she worries that if the shuttle fills up, it won’t be able to accommodate that mother with a sick child, the homeless family looking for shelter or the elderly woman trying to reach the food bank. “Who will help them?” she wrote.
According to a press release announcing the shuttle route, ending the RFA was part of a “compromise” to avoid 17 percent service cuts to Metro. In exchange, the County Council, in 2011, instituted a higher car tab renewal fee and an increase of the free bus tickets provided to human service providers.
Solid Ground CEO Gordon McHenry, Jr. said he’s heard concern that the shuttle service won’t meet the needs of people who use it. But the route was designed with input from service providers, the city and Metro, he said.
He said shuttle stops were chosen for proximity to services as well as safety. Not having a set schedule for shuttle arrival times was purposeful. “There are too many unknowns,” McHenry said.
After the service is up and running, shuttle organizers will reexamine creating a more concrete schedule, he said.
When the RFA ends late September, all downtown riders will feel the pinch. Metro will institute a pay-as-you-enter system on all downtown buses. The one-way, non-peak fare is $2.25. The shuttle will be the only free transportation service available in a city that offered the RFA for almost 40 years. Anyone can ride the shuttle.
In the recent past, the city of Seattle paid $400,000 a year to Metro to help offset losses agency officials have said resulted from operating the RFA. Those city funds will now cover shuttle costs, which means Metro will no longer receive that money, said Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer.
Switzer said ending the RFA is important to Metro’s fiscal health, as the agency estimates it will recoup approximately $2 million in lost revenue from obtaining extra fares and curtailing fare evaders. “And that does help preserve service,” he said.
Officials from Metro and Solid Ground have said the shuttle is a pilot program. At the end of 2013, the program will be re-evaluated.
But the shuttle represents only one part of a package of service changes Metro will institute once the RFA ends.
Switzer said Metro will also terminate 18 bus routes. To counter those losses, he said the transit agency will revise 61 routes and create six new routes. The changes will make the bus system more productive, he said.
For most riders, information about upcoming service changes have come via a “RIDER ALERT,” an orange-and-white posting at a bus stop or on a bus that details altered or discontinued routes.
Still, not everyone has noticed them.
Wilma Jones waited for the 124 in front of Benaroya Hall on Sept. 19. Standing there, she saw for the first time the rider alert posted at the bottom of a sidewalk display of timetables and routes. “My bus will move,” she said, realizing the stop will move farther north.
Alerts at other stops on Third Avenue have been defaced with graffiti denigrating the transit agency.
Switzer said informing riders about the upcoming service alterations is a bit of a balancing act: Metro wants to increase future efficiency while continuing to address riders’ current needs.
He said riders can visit the “Plan a Trip” tab at metro.kingcounty.gov. Along with start and end locations, passengers can enter a travel date. Any travel date entered for September 29 or later will display travel options that reflect upcoming service changes, he said.
People without Internet access can call 206.553.3000 on weekdays 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. and on weekends 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The combination of ending the RFA, the new shuttle, route changes and revisions and the introduction of new RapidRide lines amount to one of the largest changes in Metro’s history, Switzer said.
He said the end of the RFA and the changes that come in its wake have led to tens of thousands of comments, some supportive, some voicing concerns about the RFA’s demise. Switzer said the changes, including the shuttle, will help preserve bus service and “provide more revenue.”
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