King County Metro to Pause Work on RapidRide R Line Expansion Indefinitely Due to COVID-19-Related Budget Shortfalls

by Jack Russillo

Work on the long-awaited RapidRide R Line that will one day replace the Route 7 bus will be paused indefinitely, King County Metro has decided over the past several months. The halt comes after the King County Council’s vote on the 2021-2022 proposed budget last month. An online public town hall tomorrow, Dec. 4, will provide more updates and allow community members to ask questions about the project’s suspension.

King County Metro said the main reason for stopping the upgrades to the Route 7 bus line — which currently connects the International District to Rainier Beach and would eventually become the RapidRide R Line — was “an unprecedented loss” in funding due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The effects of the pandemic drastically decreased sales tax revenue and fare collections, the two largest funders of the transit project. 

The Route 7 bus was originally scheduled to be replaced by RapidRide in 2024, but it will continue to run with normal and frequent service along its existing route for the foreseeable future. Progress on the RapidRide expansion was set to begin in 2021, but now the entire R Line project is paused.

Metro originally planned to fund and upgrade seven bus lines to RapidRide service by 2027, but that number has been reduced to three routes by 2024. While the pause means that the R Line will be pushed back for some time, the RapidRide H (today’s Route 120 between Burien, White Center, Delridge, and downtown Seattle), the RapidRide G Line (connecting Madison Valley and downtown Seattle), and the future RapidRide I Line (between Renton, Kent, and Auburn) are all still a part of Metro’s proposed budget, and progress will continue on those projects.

“Part of [how Metro made the decision to prioritize the RapidRide lines] is where they were in the design phase …” said Michelle Huynh, a community relations planner for Metro. “And also, we as an organization really take into consideration equity. Given the amount of service we have in south King County and the expected growth as the RapidRide lines are built and they launch service, there was the consideration that south King County could benefit from an I Line versus an R Line. However, that was a very difficult conversation and it was very close because both the southeast part of Seattle and south King County both have a lot of need.”

The primary goals of the R Line project are to increase access to reliable and frequent transit in Rainier Valley and improve the quality and ease of connecting to transit safely. Once completed, the R Line will run between downtown Seattle, the International District, the Rainier Avenue South corridor, and the Rainier Beach Link Light Rail station on South Henderson Street. Until then, work along the 7 Route by Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) will include bus stop and median improvements, pedestrian crosswalk and signal upgrades, and protected bike lanes.

“If we move ahead to build this project with limited funding, we risk leaving service conditions worse than their current state, not better,” Metro said on the RapidRide R Line project webpage.

The adopted 2021-22 Metro budget removed the original $58,891,740 that was slated for the RapidRide R line project and the upcoming budget now has no funds available for the R Line expansion. The overall estimate for the project is roughly $92 million.

The RapidRide R Line project is still in the “preferred concept” stage of design, which means that community feedback can still affect the final outcome of the transit expansion. So far, in public comments, the Rainier Valley community has expressed its thoughts on Route 7, such as concerns about service for riders south of South Henderson Street; more reliable service within the Rainier Valley; distance between stations; safer access to stations, especially for people with mobility challenges; and fare enforcement and affordability.

“Community input shaped Metro’s development of the current RapidRide R Line preferred concept and Metro also considered community feedback when deciding to pause the project,” said Monisha Harrell, the board chair for Equal Rights Washington and a community outreach specialist from Rule Seven that has been working with Metro on the RapidRide expansion project. “The community values the Route 7 for access to essential services and we wanted to ensure that the RapidRide R Line did the same … Metro remains committed to smooth and safe transportation in this area and we just want to ensure that we’re doing it correctly and with the community’s best interest in mind.”

Metro plans to send out at least two email updates per year until the R Line project is unpaused and will communicate with project partners and the community through its blog before the project restarts.

When the R Line is completely established, service will be removed in six locations from areas currently served by Route 7. Five pairs of stops with inbound and outbound service along Rainier Avenue South — at South Mt. Baker Boulevard, South Andover Street, South Kenny Street, South Frontenac Street, and South Cloverdale Street — will be removed, as well as the inbound stop at Rainier Avenue and South Plum Street. Metro has indicated it plans to partly offset those removed stops by adding increased pedestrian safety features.

In addition to the R Line, all RapidRide stations will serve any other local route that also uses that same segment of roadway.

“This is a little bit different than some other RapidRide corridors in that we’re really trying to improve travel within the community itself, in addition to getting people to their jobs that might be downtown,” said Jerry Roberson, Metro’s lead for the RapidRide H, J, and R lines. “So, you’re not going to see as much of the end-to-end travel time improvements that you might see in other RapidRide corridors, but you’re definitely going to see a decrease in delays.”

The Route 7 is one of Seattle’s busiest transit lines, serving up to 11,200 riders per day before the COVID-19 pandemic, and it continues to be a top ridership route during the pandemic, with 60% to 70% retained ridership. 

Currently, Metro operates RapidRide lines A through F across King County, offering more frequent and reliable service, efficient ORCA fare payment, all-door boarding, and on-board Wi-Fi for riders. RapidRide routes typically carry about 67,000 rides each weekday — about 70% more than the bus routes that served the same areas before the RapidRide lines were launched. With less frequent stops in more central locations, RapidRide can be up to 20% faster, saving an average of about five minutes per trip. 

A virtual town hall event will take place tomorrow, December 4, at 11 a.m. and attendees will have their chance to hear from Metro employees about the impacts to the RapidRide expansion and the updated plans for the project and to ask questions about the design and construction processes. Those who wish to attend can register here.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Route 7 bus was originally scheduled to be replaced by RapidRide in 2021.

Jack Russillo has been reporting in western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

The featured image courtesy of Seattle Department of Transportation.