Image via Seattle Transit Blog.

I talked a little while ago with Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond, who called to let me know what happened with Metro's bus service today and what Metro's plans are for the next week. Although he took issue with my flip statement this morning that the agency was "canceling basically all bus service to much of the city," Desmond acknowledged that, to his recollection, Metro has never cut service as much as it did today—to about half the usual level. Metro's "snow plan," in fact, assumes maximum service reductions of only about 20 percent.

"Fundamentally, we're left with a choice—do we attempt to operate with as much service as possible... knowing that in doing so we risk falling on our face? Or do we dramatically reduce the number of routes to protect the quality of our system, and only run buses where we know we can operate safely" in the worst-case scenario, Desmond says. If Metro cuts service in advance, Desmond said, they "run the risk that maybe the storm isn't as bad as the forecast said"; if they don't, they could end up with buses stranded all over the city.

On Thursday, Metro went with the former plan, cutting service to about 80 percent of normal levels. By afternoon, Desmond said, "We had buses slipping and sliding all over the place. At one point, we had in the neighborhood of 300 buses out of commission." As the snow and ice continued to pile up overnight, he said, Metro managers decided to "pull in and focus our service in places where we have confidence the buses can run." That meant virtually no service at all to places like West Seattle and Redmond, which Desmond says Metro deemed "inaccessible." The decision of what routes to cut was made largely by Metro managers in the field, rather than any predetermined plan; currently, Metro has no backup plan when service needs to be cut by more than 20 percent.

Compounding the problem was the fact that more than half of Metro's fleet is made up of trolley buses (buses that operate on electrical wires, and thus can't be rerouted) or articulated buses (long buses with a flexible accordion hinge in the middle), which tend to jackknife on slippery roads. Virtually all of the articulated buses were taken off the road by this morning, and many trolley routes were canceled.

Although Desmond says Metro did the best it could under the circumstances, he acknowledged that Metro could have done a better job of communicating its thinking, and plans, to the public. "The public communications side of this is what bedevils us," Desmond said. "That's the thing that stings me the most. I'm continuously struggling for the agency to get information out sooner." Desmond says Metro plans to operate on "largely normal" service hours tomorrow and Sunday, barring more snow; after that, he says, agency managers will come up with a more flexible contingency plan to deal with similar storms in the future.