Broadmoor Transit Center

In a previous post on a BFT system revamp, I touched on the idea of building a transit center out in the West Pasco area. At the time, I suggested that a temporary facility could be operated from an empty gravel lot next to Broadmoor Park Outlet Mall until a transit center could be designed and built.

Bus Shelter at Broadmoor Blvd and Chapel Hill Blvd

Bus Shelter at Broadmoor Blvd and Chapel Hill Blvd

Currently, there is an unofficial “transfer point” in West Pasco, located at the corner of Broadmoor Blvd (Road 100) and Chapel Hill Blvd. At this intersection, three routes converge: Route 66, Route 67, and Route 225. The routes are not timed to meet within a few minutes of each other, so not many passengers try to transfer here. Apart from the stop flags near the intersection, the only form of passenger amenities is a passenger shelter served by Routes 67(EB) and 225(WB) on the NE side of the intersection.

In the past, officials at BFT have acknowledged the need for a transit center in the West Pasco area, stating it would likely be located somewhere in the Road 68 area. Beyond acknowledging the need, it appears that little else has been done. Over the last decade, development in West Pasco has boomed, and hundreds of new homes and businesses have sprung up. In response, BFT extended Route 67 in 2004 to bring service to Burden Blvd, Road 68, and Sandifur Pkwy. However, service had to later be moved off Road 68 to Road 76 in response to the continued delays from traffic congestion in the area. Since then, the only other major change to transit service in West Pasco was the linking of Route 66 and 67 in September 2011.

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Late Night Transit

In the past, most transit planning revolved around the traditional 9-5 job. Buses/trains would run frequently during the AM and PM rush hours (typically 6-9AM and 4-7PM), with “usable” service running during the midday hours and service winding down fairly early in the evening. In the modern age, transit planning has had to adapt, as the traditional 9-5 job isn’t as prevalent as it once was. Especially common in the service industry (fast food, hospitality, etc), shift times widely range in times such as 3-11PM, 6-10AM, 5:30PM-2AM and so on.

Here in Eastern Washington, only three transit agencies provide any sort of service past 7PM. As it happens, all three deliver that late night service in different ways, which we’ll explore below.

Fixed Route
In Spokane, rather than ending service at the end of the PM rush hour, Spokane Transit Authority continues to run fixed route service until between 11PM and 12AM (varying by route). With a few exceptions, all routes follow the same paths as seen during daytime service, albeit with reduced service levels. Typically, this means that routes designated as Local Service (30 minute headways) will see buses go to every 60 minutes. On some routes designated as Frequent Service (15 minute headways), buses will run every 30 minutes. This also includes some corridors served by 2 routes (such as the 60/61 in Browne’s Addition). Late night schedules are also adjusted from their daytime versions to allow timed transfers downtown at The Plaza. In theory, this allows a rider coming from one part of the city to only wait a maximum of 5-10 minutes at The Plaza to continue on their trip, but some riders are left with a 30 minute layover. It doesn’t mean riders are left out in the cold though, as the interior of The Plaza is open until the last buses leave downtown at 11:20PM.

A variation of traditional route-deviated service, Valley Transit in Walla Walla and College Place runs two deviated-loop routes through the metro during late night weekdays. With regular fixed route service ending at 5:45, the deviated-loop routes run at 45 minute headways and cover the west and east ends of the metro respectively. Regular stops are made along the loop, but riders can also request a deviation up to 1/4mi off the loop. For riders needing to go further, a separate Valley Transit bus will bring them to their destination. The last trips leave Walla Walla Transit Center at 8:00PM and return just before 8:45PM, but Valley Transit does leave one bus in service to bring passengers to their final destination (if needed). That bus also remains in service to transport students from Walla Walla Community College on school nights, leaving the campus at 9:10PM and only traveling to rider’s destinations.

Demand Response
As I’ve previously covered here, Ben Franklin Transit operates a demand response service called Trans+Plus on weeknight and Saturdays using a contractor. Recently, that service was extended from 12:30AM to 2AM, and daytime service was also reinstated on Sundays. Rather than relying on scheduled fixed route service, anybody can call to reserve a ride at any time the service is operating (in 15 minutes intervals; :00, :15, :30, and :45). As it is a premium service, fares are higher than fixed route service, with the cash fare at $3 one-way for all passengers (adult/child/senior/ADA). There is also the option to buy the Freedom Pass for $50, which allows the holder unrestricted usage on all BFT services. There are times where riders may have to be flexible with their plans, as capacity on the service is limited due to a limited financial allocation. Most regular riders on Trans+Plus are used to the concept of calling as early as possible after the reservation line opens daily at 2PM, which is also why the majority of the ridership uses it for work-related trips. The contractor also allows riders to set up a recurring subscription ride, negating the need to call in a reservation daily.

In an ideal world, all transit agencies would have the ability to get any rider anywhere they want to go whenever they want. In these three different examples, the service modes for late night transit have been adapted to fit the base needs of the ridership while still keeping it within budget to get the most value for the agency’s money.

On The Ballot – Okanogan County Transit Authority

With today being the last day for voters in Washington State to send in their ballots, I thought it would be important to highlight a key transit proposal in the north-central part of the state.

In Okanogan County, voters are being asked to vote on Proposition 1, or the “Okanogan County Transportation District, Sales and Use Tax Levy.” This is is the summary on Proposition 1 that appeared in voter pamphlets for the county:

This proposition would fund the operation, maintenance equipment and facilities for a public transportation system within the boundaries of the Transit Authority. Shall the Okanogan County Transit Authority be authorized to impose a sales/use tax of up to four-tenths of one percent (4 cents on a $10 taxable purchase), as authorized by law, to be collected for the purpose of operating, maintaining and providing equipment and facilities for a public transportation system?
The Okanogan County Transit Authority (OCTA) includes Okanogan County except the southeastern precincts and the Town of Nespelem. The precinct numbers 0016, 0027, 0049, 0058, 0066, 0068, 0101, 0102, 0103, 0104, 0132, 0133 are not included in the Okanogan County Transit Authority’s boundary.

If passed, Okanogan County Transit Authority (OCTA) would provide daily weekday service on 5 routes, along with ADA service through the same areas. Below is a list of the proposed routes that would be operated initially, along with the number of trips to be run each day.

  • Omak-Riverside/Tonasket/Oroville: 3 round-trips daily
  • Omak-Brewster/Pateros: 3 round-trips daily
  • Omak-Twisp/Winthrop: 3 round-trips daily
  • Omak/Okanogan Urban Loop: 10 loop-trips daily
  • Winthrop-Twisp/Pateros: 2 round-trips daily

It is important that some of the proposed routes in the OCTA system are already serviced by a local non-profit, Okanogan County Tranportation and Nutrition. However, OCTN is funded solely by grants and donations, so available services can change on a yearly basis based upon the funding available. With a dedicated 4/10th’s transit tax to fund OCTA, service would be more reliable and as noted in the final draft of the OCTA 2013 Transit Service Plan, service could be further expanded to other outlying areas and even to make connections with neighboring transit agencies (Link Transit in Chelan/Douglas Counties and Grant Transit Authority in Grant County). Note also that as indicated in the language from the ballot summary, the Town of Nespelem and surrounding precincts in the southeastern part of the county are excluded from this vote. That part of the county is part of the Colville Indian Reservation, which runs their own shuttle service. In partnership with OCTN, there is also a route that runs between Omak and Coulee City via Nespelem on a daily basis, and that will likely continue if OCTA does begin operations.

Even though I’ve never been to Okanogan County, I find it quite exciting that residents in the area may vote to institute a brand new transit agency. It does go to show that public transportation is not just a urban issue, but a rural issue as well.

For more information, check out “Get On The Bus Okanogan

Yakima Transit Revision

Yakima Transit 34Late last month, local media in Yakima reported that Yakima Transit was considering eliminating Route 8 and revising Route 1. In this proposal, all service west of 72nd Avenue would be eliminated. After holding a public hearing on the proposal and accepting public comments, it seemed as though the Yakima City Council would approve this without much thought. However, in a bit of a surprise move, the City Council deferred the vote to cut Route 8 by 6-1 and asked Yakima Transit officials to conduct further study on this.

In the proposal for the elimination of Route 8, Yakima Transit officials noted that this route has the lowest ridership in the entire system (with Route 1 having the 2nd-lowest ridership). Part of the reason for this might be that both Route 1 and 8 only run at 60-minute headways throughout the day, along with only Route 1 operating on Saturday/Sunday. There’s no data on it, but it appears that these routes also have a major problem with on-time performance. Lastly, Route 1 and 8 are a bit stretched out, literally. Going all the way to the western edge of the city, both routes travel out to 96th Avenue before turning around and heading back towards Downtown Yakima. As a general rule, most transit planners will tell you that transit ridership decreases the further away you get from the city center.

While not small by any means, Yakima Transit isn’t exactly a large transit agency. Referring to the schedules, it appears that only 16 buses are in service during peak hours (excluding trippers and the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter) on the 10 routes serving Yakima and Selah. With its small city nature, Yakima Transit’s route structure has a lot of oddities and quirks in the design, such as Route 1/8 turning into a parking lot for a senior center in west Yakima instead of just having a stop on the street. Perhaps my favorite example is the odd route numbering system, where all routes (except 6 and 10) operate in looped pairs with one route running clockwise and the other running counter-clockwise. Perhaps there is a good reason for this, but as an outside observer with multiple experiences with Yakima Transit, it really doesn’t seem very useful.

While it’s not clear what direction Yakima Transit officials will take in regards to Route 8, it seems more than likely that it will be cut. I figured this may be a good time to reevaluate the network as a whole and see about making some changes that could improve things. Below is a map of my proposed restructure of Yakima Transit.

For the most part, the changes I propose are subtle. Details are listed below.

Route 1
This proposal assumes that Route 8 will be cut, so Route 1 is revised to serve the key parts of the old 1/8 paring while also preserving the service out to 96th Ave, which was heavily cited in comments from the public as reasons not to cut Route 8. Service is provided on Yakima Ave and Summitview Ave, with service to the West Valley area kept intact with a counter-clockwise loop on 72nd Ave/Tieton Dr/96th Ave/Summitview Ave. Service to Lincoln Ave/Englewood Ave and 65th Ave is discontinued, but these areas are still mostly within a 10 minute walkshed of the revised Route 1.

Route 2/5
To simplify the routes, the clockwise/counter-clockwise looping system is abandoned. Instead, Routes 2 and 5 are revised to an interline loop, with Route 2 providing bidirectional service on Walnut St, Tieton Dr, and 72nd Ave, and Route 5 providing bidirectional service on 6th St, Nob Hill Blvd, and 64th Ave. At the corner of 72nd Ave and Washington Ave, buses running as the outbound Route 5 will become the inbound Route 2, and vice versa.

Route 3/4
To simplify the routes, the clockwise/counter-clockwise looping system is abandoned. Instead, Routes 3 and 4 are revised to an interline loop, with Route 3 providing bidirectional service on 3rd Ave, Mead Ave, 16th Ave, and J St, and Route 4 providing bidirectional service on 5th Ave, River Rd, 34th Ave, Englewood Ave, and 20th Ave. At Public Works Transit Center, buses running as the outbound Route 4 will become the inbound Route 3, and vice versa. (More about Public Works Transit Center below.)

Route 6
Currently, Route 6 operates as a two-part route, with a bus on Route 6N and another on Route 6S leaving Yakima Transit Center at the same times on 30 minute headways. Anchored around Gateway Center and the Wal-Mart just east of I-82 on the other side of downtown, both parts of Route 6 run in a long, circuitous loop with an abundance of turns through the residential neighborhoods north, east, and south of downtown. To simplify things, the route sees a major overhaul in this proposal. Service is provided on 8th St, Lincoln Ave/MLK Blvd (one-way couplet), Fair Ave, 18th St, Washington Ave, and 1st St to the Valley Mall Transfer Point. (More about the Valley Mall Transfer Point below.) in the middle of the route, there is a split where southbound buses will serve Pacific Ave and 18th St, while northbound buses will serve Mead Ave and Fair Ave. It is worth noting that south of Mead Ave, buses will be crossing into Union Gap, which is not in the Yakima Transit taxing area. This proposal assumes that Union Gap would be okay with Yakima Transit buses serving part of the city without a tax contribution from them, and also that Union Gap Transit would continue its existing service in the area.

Route 7/9
To simplify the routes, the clockwise/counter-clockwise looping system is abandoned. Instead, Route 7 and 9 are revised to an interline loop, with Route 7 providing bidirectional service on 6th Ave, I St, Fruitvale Blvd, and 40th Ave, and Route 9 providing bidirectional service on 3rd St, 1st St, and Washington Ave. At 40th Ave and Washington Ave, buses running as the outbound Route 9 will become the inbound Route 7, and vice versa.

Route 10
While Route 10 is part of the Yakima Transit network, the funding and design is the responsibility of the City of Selah. (Yakima Transit operates it for Selah under a contract.) Therefore, this proposal will have no changes for Route 10.

Route 11 (Not Shown)
As previously covered here, Route 11, or the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter, has been running since November 2011. With funding and planning coming from a multitude of agencies, this plan assumes no changes will be made to Route 11.

Route 12 (New Route)
Back in September 2009, Yakima Transit started a one-year trial service to the Terrace Heights area east of Yakima. The service didn’t continue past that first year however, as Yakima County was unwilling to help subsidize the service. When Yakima Transit ran service to Terrace Heights, they revised Route 6 and extended it out to a loop on Keys Rd, University Pkwy, and Terrace Heights Dr, creating an even bigger mess than the current iteration. With Route 6 now again changed in this proposal, there becomes a need to restore service to the commercial area east of I-82. Instead of just running a shuttle to/from the area, it seems worthwhile to explore restoring service to the Terrace Heights area. This of course would require financial support from Yakima County. If it were feasible, the route would provide bidirectional service on Terrace Heights Dr, Keys Rd, and University Pkwy, with a turnback loop on 41st St, Maple Ave, Sycamore Dr, 57th St, Roza Hill Dr, Canyon Rd, and Terrace Heights Dr. A deviation to the commercial area east of I-82 would be kept as well, with bidirectional service on 17th St, Chalmers Rd, Riverside St, and 18th St. (This proposal also assumes that if support from Yakima County didn’t materialize, then Route 12 would not exist and Route 6 would remain unchanged.)

Yakima Transit Center
In the 2013 Transit Development Plan, Yakima Transit officials indicated that they are looking at moving the transit center in Downtown Yakima from the current location on 4th St between Chestnut Ave and Walnut St to Front St between Yakima Ave and Chestnut Ave. If this plan did come to fruition, the proposal to restructure the routes would be adjusted accordingly.

Public Works Transit Center
While four routes (3/4/7/9) currently serve this transit center, located next to Yakima’s Public Works yard, none of the routes are coordinated to make a timed transfer. While this still wouldn’t be a possibility in this proposal, effort would be made to simplify the schedules to keep the time spread between bus arrivals/departures consistent and easy to remember. Note also that this would function as a layover point for buses on Routes 3 and 4, which as previously mentioned interline here.

Valley Mall Transfer Point
After a WSDOT project to add roundabouts at the Valley Mall Blvd/I-82 Interchange, a new bus pullout just north of Valley Mall Blvd and Main St was also added. Currently Routes 7 and 9 use the stop, but in this proposal it would be used as a stop for Route 9 (running bidirectional service as previously mentioned) and a layover point for Route 6. Like Public Works Transit Center, timed transfers would not be possible but effort would be made to simplify the schedules to keep the time spread between bus arrivals/departures consistent and easy to remember.

(This is a proposal, and does not represent any official plan from Yakima Transit.)
(Se trata de una propuesta, y no representa ningún plan oficial de Yakima Transit.)

A Glimpse At The Future of MetroRapid

Back in May, I discussed how the MetroRapid network was largely a consolation price for the failed Tampa light rail referendum in 2010. Since then, the first line of the network, the North-South Line, has begun service and has now been running for several months. There have been some adjustments made to the route and the schedule itself, but ridership on the line seems to be doing quite well. In the meantime, work continues on the design of the East-West Line, though the actual implementation of the line remains unfunded.

Though it’s hard to say what the timeline for further expansion of the MetroRapid network will be, we now have a much better look at what the design of the network itself will look like. As part of the draft Transit Development Plan (TDP) for 2014-2023, maps of all the planned MetroRapid lines were included. If you refer back to the map of the proposed BRT/Light Rail network from pre-2010, you can see the existing North-South Line and the planned East-West Line, along with proposed lines for Dale Mabry Highway, Kennedy Blvd/Airport, and Downtown-Brandon. In the new TDP, there’s a brand-new line proposed for Busch Blvd/Gunn Highway (Route 39 overlay), along with extensions of the Dale Mabry Highway line to Lutz, the New Tampa line from the county line to a proposed Pasco County Public Transit park-and-ride in Wesley Chapel, and the Downtown-Brandon line from Parsons Ave to Dover Road.

Below is a gallery of the 6 future MetroRapid lines that were designed by HART. Note that they are in the same order as they are appeared in the draft 2014-2023 TDP, and do not necessarily reflect the sequence of implementation.

MetroRapid East-West

MetroRapid Kennedy Blvd-TIA

MetroRapid New Tampa

MetroRapid Brandon

MetroRapid Dale Mabry Hwy

MetroRapid Gunn Hwy-Busch Blvd

I also drew all 6 planned lines, along with the existing North-South Line, on Google Maps as you can see below.

Sunday Service Returns (And Night Service Is Extended)

Back in July, I first announced the possibility that Ben Franklin Transit would start running Sunday Service again. (It was cut in 2009 after the recession hit.) Since then, a public hearing was held on August 20th, with the vast majority of attendees in support of this. Earlier this month during the September BFT Board of Directors meeting, they unanimously voted in approval to reintroduce Sunday Service and extend the hours of Night Service.

So, what happens now?

Night Service
Starting October 1st, the hours of service will be extended from the current 7PM-12:30AM to 6:30PM-2AM. (Note that Taxi Feeder service, which currently ends at 6PM, will be extended a half hour to end at 6:30PM before Night Service starts.) Otherwise, there will only be minor changes to other aspects of Night Service. The reservation line will still open daily at 2PM, but calls can now be made until 1:30AM. Tri-City Taxi will still be operating the service, and the capacity of available rides will remain roughly the same as it is now. (Remember that it’s always best to call as early as possible for a ride.)

Sunday Service
Beginning on October 6th, and every Sunday from here on out, Sunday Service will run from 7:30AM-6PM. To reserve a ride, riders will have to call the day before (Saturday) between 2PM-9PM. (Sunday Service will be using the same reservation line as Night Service). However, there is the option to call on Sunday after 7:30AM and try to get a ride reservation (which will only be available after 9AM), dependent on available capacity. It is strongly advised to book rides the day before, as Tri-City Taxi will be staffing Sunday Service according to the projected demand for that day based on how many reservations are made.

For more information:
Ben Franklin Transit Customer Service – 735-5100
Night Service/Sunday Service Reservation Line – 545-0684

Staying On Schedule

This last weekend, I rode on Route 160 at the same time in the morning on both Friday and Saturday while on my way to work. Even though it was the same trip on the same route, the experience was quite different between the two days. On Friday, we left Dayton TC as soon as the clock said it was time to go. Over the course of the trip, there were less than 8 people, and we only had to stop a handful of times. By the time we got to my stop (the last one before Three Rivers TC), just 15 minutes had elapsed, which is also the same amount of time Google Maps estimates the drive from Dayton TC to Three Rivers TC will take on the same route. On Saturday, the bus had quite a few more passengers, with more boarding/alighting at most of the key stops along the route. By the time we got to my stop, about 22 minutes had elapsed, which according to the public schedule actually makes the bus late by 2 minutes (though regular riders of the 160 would know this is more in line with the usual running time of the route).

After the stark differences I had in my experience (as minuscule as they might seem), I started thinking about what it really means to say that a bus is “on schedule.”

Traditionally, Ben Franklin Transit has told riders that they should be at their bus stop at least 5 minutes before the bus is scheduled to arrive. With a large majority of the passengers being regular riders who use the bus at least once a week, the process of catching a bus is pretty routine as they largely have the schedule(s) committed to memory. Being used to this laid back approach was a bit of a culture shock for me last year when I moved twice and spent several months living in Tampa and later Spokane. As a major metro and medium-city respectively, the transit agencies did things quite differently.

It wasn’t until I was in Tampa when I learned about the concept of a “timepoint hold.” Just like BFT, they publish their schedules with times at key points along the route listed. However, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) had a strict policy for their operators that if they pass a scheduled timepoint early, they will be subject to disciplinary action (i.e. a write-up). On the very first night I was in Tampa while getting my introductory tour of HART with Jason Eames, we were on a late night Route 30 trip where the bus operator was deliberately driving the bus slow (by my estimation about 25-30mph on a 40mph road). Having never seen something like this, I asked Jason about it and he explained the aforementioned policy. Later on in my time in Tampa, I noticed other bus operators doing the same thing, while others would drive the bus at a regular pace until they arrived at a timepoint where they would stop the bus and wait until the clock said they could proceed. I also observed the same thing in Spokane while riding Spokane Transit Authority buses, though it was quite rare for it to happen there (which may be attributed to careful work by staff to develop more accurate schedules in a time of austerity measures).

When I was living in Tampa and Spokane, the concept of the “timepoint hold” seemed a bit extreme and even wasteful to me. After moving back to the Tri-Cities and riding BFT again, I’ve started to wonder if there may be something to it. The schedule is arguably the most crucial piece of information for bus riders. Whether they’re an experienced rider or a new one, it’s important to be able to know what time your bus leaves and when you’ll get to your destination, along with how long the trip will take. If the bus isn’t running within 5 minutes of that schedule, it can mean a few things. Maybe the schedule wasn’t allocated enough time and needs to be adjusted, or maybe the bus operators are traversing the route too fast and need to be asked to slow down a bit. When you’re dealing with routes that only run at 30 minute plus headways, this is especially critical. Nobody wants to be waiting outside in the hot sun or pouring rain only to find out that the bus passed by 3 minutes before they got there and now they’re stuck waiting for at least another half-hour. Even if it’s a frequent bus route (every 15 minutes or greater), a schedule is still a crucial tool to have. (You may recall earlier this year when I posted the entire schedule for Tampa’s MetroRapid North-South Line after HART neglected to do so initially).

In the future, relying on public schedules may not be such a critical issue as more and more agencies start launching real-time bus tracking apps and others starting increasing frequencies. For the time being however, we have to work on the basic issues to help attract new riders, and solving the issue of staying on schedule is probably the best place to start.

Why Isn’t There a Seattle-Pasco Train?

Whenever the discussion about an east-west train in Washington State comes up, it usually revolves around a Seattle-Spokane route. Outside of the Puget Sound area, Spokane is the largest metro in the state, so it only makes sense that this is where an east-west train would need to go. However, often overlooked is the Tri-Cities, which just happens to be the 2nd largest metro on the east side of the state.

Back in 1971, when Amtrak officially took over the passenger rail network in the United States, the Empire Builder served as an east-west rail link for Washington State. Unlike the modern version, the Empire Builder back then ran between Seattle and Spokane via Ellensburg and Pasco. (The train was not branched in Spokane at this time). 10 years later, Amtrak went through and changed the Empire Builder to run the same as it had before Amtrak took over, with the train branching in Spokane and one half going to Seattle via Wenatchee and Everett and the other half going to Portland via Pasco and Vancouver. 1981 ended up being the last year that Yakima and Ellensburg had passenger rail service.

The issue we have presently is that there is a latent demand for more east-west passenger rail service in Washington, but there are a lot of challenges both infrastructurally and financially that have to be dealt with first.

In Washington, there are three east-west rail lines crossing the Cascades. The northern-most and busiest is the Scenic Subdivision (Seattle-Everett-Wenatchee). Currently, this crossing is operating at a full capacity of 28 trains a day. Due to the design of the Cascade Tunnel and the necessary ventilation of it, capacity on this line cannot be increased without major investment. On the south end of the state is the Fallbridge Subdivision (Portland-Vancouver-Pasco). Running at near-full capacity, this line is often used as a reliever for slower freight traffic that would otherwise be using the Scenic Subdivision. This is also where the Portland branch of the Empire Builder runs, giving the Tri-Cities it’s only passenger rail connection. Lastly, there is the Stampede Subdivision (Auburn-Ellensburg). This line is notable as the quietest Class I rail subdivision in the state, and there’s a big reason for that: Stampede Tunnel. Unlike the Cascade Tunnel, the Stampede Tunnel cannot be used by “double-stacks” due to a low clearance. Because of that, the line isn’t very useful for freight traffic. Back in 1984, the line was mothballed by Burlington Northern as it was considered redundant. However, they later reversed their position due to increasing freight traffic and in 1996 the line was reopened. (The line was also temporarily mothballed in the mid-2000’s, though it’s not entirely clear why).

Ignoring the fact that it is the most direct route between Seattle and Pasco using the Stampede Subdivision (and Yakima Valley Subdivision between Ellensburg and Pasco) makes sense due to the low traffic volumes currently using the line. I don’t know the exact figures, but presently it appears the BNSF is mainly using the line to send empty freight trains eastbound, along with a little localized freight traffic. Neither the Scenic nor Fallbridge Subdivisions (and their connecting subdivisions) have any room to add an additional scheduled passenger rail service without major and costly infrastructure investments. However, the Stampede/Yakima Valley route does have some drawbacks. Between Ellensburg and Yakima, the line spends about 11 miles snaking its way though the Yakima River canyon. With no other alternative for a route between Ellensburg and Yakima, trains will be stuck on this slow piece of track. Track improvements could possibly bump up the speed limit to 50mph at best, but again that comes down to the cost of investment. Due to deferred maintenance, there are also multiple “slow orders” on the route, mostly on the Stampede Subdivision. Another problem is that much of the line is “dark,” meaning it runs under a Track Warrant Control (TWC) system. Under TWC, train movements are dictated via dispatch and orders are given out via radio. At the sidings along the line, there is Centralized Traffic Control (CTC), or signals, installed. If traffic on this line were to increase, it would likely require the installation of CTC along the entire length, which once again is contingent on the cost to install it.

Once all the issues with the track were sorted out, we would still need to figure out how the train would be operated. Perhaps most importantly, that would mean funding an actual train to use. As it stands right now, Amtrak’s fleet runs with about 87-88% of their fleet in service during peak demand, with the rest in maintenance. We have to assume that there are no spare cars to use for a Seattle-Pasco train, thus new ones would have to be built. However, it is worth noting that there are two Talgo trainsets sitting in Wisconsin awaiting their fate. (They were intended for the Hiawatha service, but politics got in the way of that.) The Superliner car (the one used on the Empire Builder) would fit in the Stampede Tunnel, so for simplicity we’ll assume that the Seattle-Pasco train would use it. As for a locomotive, that would be much easier to secure as there are multiple types to choose from and no shortage of new ones being built. However, with each Superliner car costing somewhere between $2-3 million and each locomotive costing somewhere between $4-5 million, putting together just one train consist for service every other day would not be cheap. Assuming we would have 2 train consists with 3 cars for daily bi-directional service, we’d still have to come up with at least $24 million to pay for it.

Lastly, we would need to find places to use as stations. On the proposed route, the train would serve the following cities: Seattle, Tukwila, Kent, Auburn, Ellensburg, Yakima, Toppenish*, Prosser*, and Pasco. (*Service may be deferred at these locations.) On the west side of the state, all the stations are operational and updated to modern standards. On the east side of the state is a different story, as Pasco Intermodal Station is the only location open at present. In the case of Ellensburg, Yakima and Toppenish, all three cities still have their original Northern Pacific Depots. In Ellensburg, local efforts have been under way for some time now as they work to restore the depot to its former glory in the hopes that it will eventually become the transportation hub for the area. In Yakima, the depot was last occupied by a restaurant that closed in 2008, but it now sits vacant. When I recently visited a couple of months ago, it looked like the building was still in fairly usable condition. In Toppenish, the old Northern Pacific Depot is now used by the Northern Pacific Railroad Museum. In Prosser, the old Burlington Northern Depot is now occupied by the Prosser Chamber of Commerce/Visitor Information, though it is worth noting that the platform is still in usable condition. At the bare minimum, there would need to be the construction of a platform (along with ADA accessibility) for train service to begin in these cities. In Pasco, the platform would also have to be extended if the train were to be longer than 4-5 cars.

As insurmountable as it may seem, I still think that a Seattle-Pasco train is something that is worth looking into. Something else that is interesting to note is that in Amtrak’s study on the restoration of the North Coast Hiawatha, it was mentioned that unlike the previous iteration of the route, the new version would need to run via Pasco and Ellensburg between Spokane and Seattle. So who knows, there may just be hope as of yet.

Sunday Service May Be Returning

More than 9 years ago, Ben Franklin Transit launched the first Sunday transit service to ever be operated in the Tri-Cities. Beginning on February 15 2004, the service ran as a demand-response operation using a contractor. Service was available on a first-come, first-serve basis (just like Night Service) and ran from 8AM-5PM, with riders being charged a fare of $1.75. While popular with those who used the service, it was one of the more costly items in the BFT budget and thus was one of the first things to be cut after the recession hit. After the Fall Shakeup began in September 2009, transit riders in the Tri-Cities  were once again left with no service on Sundays.

Since then, things have started to improve at BFT. While the long-term future may not be secure just yet, the budget is once again in the black. Small improvements have already begun, such as the introduction of 4 brand new buses featuring a brand new livery and the addition of new taxi feeder areas. However, perhaps one of the biggest things was a subtle mention from staff at this month’s board of directors meeting that Sunday Service may be returning. Though it’s only a proposal at this point, if it were to return Sunday Service would operate from 8AM-6PM as a demand-response service operated by a contractor. Fares would likely be $3 per ride, or riders can also use the Freedom Pass for unlimited rides.

Interesting to note is that this isn’t the only service expansion that is being proposed. Staff are also looking at extending Night Service to operate from 6:30PM-2AM (currently it runs 7PM-12:30AM), along with removing the current cap on rides provided by Night Service, which means it’ll be much easier to book a ride on Night Service now. Taxi Feeder service would also be extended a half hour to end at 6:30PM (currently it ends at 6PM).

On August 20th, a public hearing will be held at 2PM in the conference room at Three Rivers Transit Center. Comments will also be accepted via BFT’s customer comment line (734-5201) or by emailing I for one will be supporting these proposed changes, and I certainly hope that everyone else does as well.

BFT’s ZEPS Electric Bus Begins Service

It’s here!

2013 Complete Coach Works ZEPS Electric Bus Photo Credit: Zachary Ziegler

2013 Complete Coach Works ZEPS Electric Bus
Photo Credit: Zachary Ziegler

After a long wait, the ZEPS Electric Bus has finally begun rolling on the streets in the Tri-Cities. Last October, I first reported that Ben Franklin Transit would be launching an all-electric battery-powered bus built by Complete Coach Works of Riverside CA. While it was supposed to begin service last year, delays in the building of the bus (mainly waiting on the batteries to arrive from China) pushed the launch back to now. The bus has actually been in the Tri-Cities since last month, but it did not go into service immediately as BFT staff needed time to familiarize themselves with the bus, as well as clear up any potential operational problems (such as low hanging branches on the routes it is running on).

On Tuesday, I just happened to be at Knight Street TC in Richland on my way home when I saw the ZEPS Electric Bus arriving as an inbound Route 26. Since I’d missed a few previous chances at PR events to see the bus, I jumped at this chance and took a ride as it ran a trip on Route 23. Along the way, I took some notes about the bus:

  • As expected, the bus is very quiet. With no diesel engine or transmission to make noise, the only sound you can hear is the hum of the electric motor and the A/C unit running.
  • When accelerating from 0mph, the bus has a bit of a rattle (imagine a bad shift on a manual transmission car). This only lasts a few seconds, and seems to be less intense when the bus operator accelerates faster.
  • 5-25mph is about the ideal speed range for the bus. Once it gets over that range, the bus starts to become more sensitive to small bumps on the road.
  • With the big battery box sitting on the roof, the bus ride is a bit stiffer. Going through corners, the bus has less “body roll,” but the suspension also strains a bit more in corners due to the added weight. The added weight also makes the bus sit a couple of inches lower, and along the way it did grind on the road a couple of times while passing through intersections in North Richland.
  • Anyone who rides a Gillig Low Floor regularly is familiar with the interior rattle, but on the ZEPS Electric Bus it is fairly muted. Once the bus gets past 25mph, you do start to hear some of those rattles though.
  • To extend the range of the bus, there is a regenerative braking system installed. The average rider won’t notice it, but a trained ear can tell when it kicks in. The transition between acceleration and regenerative braking is quite smooth, unlike the slight kick you sometimes feel on a Gillig HEV.
  • To lighten the bus up a bit, new seating was installed. Unlike the typical fully padded seats one can find in BFT’s buses (excluding ones bought used), these are ergonomic seats made of composite material. I heard multiple operators state that they were uncomfortable, but I found them perfectly fine. The floor was also redone, with the plywood subfloor replaced by a composite with a rubber flooring on top.
  • In the operators area, there are a couple noticeable changes. Where the transmission control normally sits, there is a large toggle switch and a yellow push button. On the right side of the dash, a 7-inch screen has been installed. On the screen, there are two gauges for the regenerative braking and the battery charge. While passing through the Stevens Center area, the bus operator exclaimed out loud that the bus had only used 25% of the charge. While it’s obviously an add-on to the usual Gillig Low Floor dashboard, it is molded in so it looks like it belongs there.
  • On the exterior of the bus, the most noticable change is the special livery. New LED headlights were also installed, and two overhead A/C units are on the roof of the bus (the usual A/C housing at the back of the bus was vacated for the electric drivetrain system).

Overall, I had pretty high expectations for the ZEPS Electric Bus and it did not disappoint. Based on what I’ve been told by BFT officials, the bus will be going into service during peak hours only for the time being. During both peak periods, it runs on a Route 23/26 interline. In the near future, there are also plans to test it on other local routes, but it will unlikely be seen on any intercity routes.

My recommendation to anyone who has the chance to take a ride on the ZEPS Electric Bus is to do so. As I’ve said before, this very well may be a small step into the future of public transportation.