Editor's note: This post has been updated.
As several bills that would have helped cyclists and transit riders were allowed to die this week, senate transportation leaders pushed through a bill that would allow private bus and vanpool companies unlimited access to facilities, like bus-rapid-transit lanes and public park-and-rides, currently reserved for public transit.
The bill, sponsored by Senate transportation chair Mary Margaret Haugen (D-10), would allow any vehicle with the capacity to carry eight or more passengers (except stretch limos and stretch SUVs) onto bus-only lanes, even if the vehicle has no passengers.
The bill, ostensibly aimed at encouraging private transit services like Microsoft's Connector buses to Redmond, would also open up bus lanes to charter vans, airport shuttles, and unspecified "private nonprofit transportation provider vehicles."
It would also allow those vehicles to park in park-and-rides at all hours. The bill stipulates that private vehicles could only park in park-and-rides that are less than 90 percent full during off-peak hours (i.e., at night); however, because park-and-rides are usually empty at night, that provision lacks teeth. "We have 29 lots that are at 90 percent of capacity or more during peak hours" already, says Doug Hodson, a spokesman for the King County Department of Transportation. "If that provision doesn't apply during the peak periods, we're going to have an overflow situation."
If the legislation passes, it would impact the dedicated E3 busway south of downtown, Third Avenue downtown, which is bus-only during morning and evening rush hours, and all of Metro's five planned RapidRide dedicated bus lanes, which are supposed to provide service as fast and reliable as light rail. It could also allow private shuttles into the downtown bus tunnel, unless Metro and Sound Transit can prove they pose a safety risk.
The original version of the bill would have also allowed limo drivers to drive alone in bus lanes on their way back to the airport.
"I had big concerns [with the bill] because, if you go to Third Avenue at 4:00 on a Friday, you cannot fit one more vehicle on there because there's so many buses," says Andrew Austin, lobbyist for the Transportation Choices Coalition. Austin says lobbyists for transit agencies are hammering out a compromise that would have less of a detrimental impact on public transportation.
However, Sen. Ed Murray (D-43), the only senator to vote against the bill, says it was pushed through so quickly that he's not sure legislators know what's in it. And he says he's concerned that the bill doesn't include a "trigger," such as a certain level of congestion, to exclude private vans and buses from transit lanes. "If the HOV lanes get full, I think they should primarily and first be for public transit," Murray says. "I was concerned that there wasn't a [provision] where, if you reach a certain capacity, those [private transit providers] could be pushed out of there."
Hodson says Metro and other transit agencies will continue to push for such a provision, along with additional restrictions on the ability of private transportation operators to use public park-and-rides. "If traffic slows to a halt and it starts impacting the efficiency and reliability of our public transportation system, there is [currently] no provision for us to say [private companies] could not use" those transit lanes, Hodson says.
Hodson says Metro has "no idea" how many private charter bus companies, airport shuttle vehicles, and employer shuttles there are in King County.