July 16, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 29

Feature

Saving the Night Owl

By Aaron Burkhalter / Staff Reporter

An effort to protect endangered late-night buses is pitted against future transit

Night owl bus routes serving the Central District, Ravenna and Greenlake are among the first routes to go when Metro starts the first of four rounds of cuts in September. Mayor Ed Murray wants to give the routes a jump, keeping them rolling through the end of 2015 by shifting transportation funding.

Illustration by Peter Orr

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Since 1919, mass transit has served Seattleites who are out late or people who work early morning shifts downtown.

Today, six bus routes operate between 2 and 4 a.m.

They’re not just for bar-goers or early birds. One night in January, volunteers with the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness found 112 homeless people riding the so-called Night Owl buses.

In September, three of the routes — which serve Ravenna, Greenlake and the Central District — will be on the chopping block as Metro reduces its service by 16 percent to manage a projected $75 million deficit.

Routes 82, 83 and 84 are in the bottom quarter of performance in terms of ridership. Each bus runs twice between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., carrying 15 to 25 people per trip.

By cutting them, Metro can save an estimated $550,000 each year, said Victor Obeso, Metro’s service development manager.

But Mayor Ed Murray wants to save them, and he has proposed funding the routes through the end of 2015 with $550,000 in city funds reserved for transportation funding. After that, the buses would rely on a proposed $60 car tab fee and sales tax the Seattle City Council may put before voters in November.

The move would be a trade-off. Murray is proposing to take $254,000 in savings from an $800,000 study on Ballard-to-downtown transit expansion that was completed under budget. He has also proposed deferring a $446,000 study of transportation over the ship canal.

Seattle already pays Metro for 6,000 hours of service each year, Obeso said.

“When they’re willing to fund those services, we provide the services,” he said.

Andrew Austin, policy director of Transportation Choices Coalition, a transit advocacy nonprofit, said without funding from the city, the buses will be shut down between September and January.

“We don’t want there to be a gap of the nighttime bus service for three months,” Austin said.

A vulnerable population of homeless people and low-wage workers rely on Night Owl buses, and they would be harmed by losing service, even if voters restore it by passing a transportation funding package in November, he said.

It’s also easier to sell voters on preserving buses than restoring buses that have already been cut, Austin said.

The council must approve the proposed shift in funding, said MaryBeth Turner, spokesperson for the Seattle Department of Transportation.

Some on the council are skeptical. At a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s Transportation Committee, Councilmember Mike O’Brien said he was concerned about delaying the ship canal crossing study without a clear plan for when it will take place again.

“I’d be interested in exploring what other opportunities we have,” he said.

To Murray, Night Owl buses are a more pressing concern, said spokesperson Megan Coppersmith.

Metro is preparing for a series of cuts to take place over the next year to manage its $75 million shortfall. King County voters in April rejected a 0.1 percent sales tax and $60 car tab fee to maintain the bus system.


Front Page Title: Later, Dude. Murray gives late-night bus routes a jolt

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