Buses Ready To Roll

LIGHT-RAIL has had most of the publicity, but on Sunday Sound Transit will launch its fleet of Express routes, the first phase of its regional plan to provide service to commuters in three counties.

Regional bus riders have been waiting three years for what's going to happen Sunday.

Beginning at noon, 117 blue-and-white coaches with a fancy wave design on the side will roll onto area streets to launch nine express routes, the first big deployment of services by the region's new transportation agency, Sound Transit.

For most Seattle-area suburbs, including the traffic-jammed Eastside, the new buses and routes are the main benefits they're going to get from Sound Transit.

While most of the attention Sound Transit has received since its 1996 approval by voters has focused on plans for a light-rail system, it's buses that are going to provide more rides for most of the region.

The first leg of the light-rail system is planned to run only from Seattle's University District to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, bypassing such major population centers as Bellevue and Redmond, and isn't expected to be completed until 2006.

For those areas, Sound Transit will run 18 bus routes, including nine beginning Sunday.

Most of the trips will be made on new ST Express buses, with air conditioning, high-back reclining seats and overhead luggage bins.

"The major message we want to get out is that we're not an overlay - we're a brand-new service," said Veronica Parker, manager of Sound Transit's regional bus programs.

The new routes will offer direct service from Bellevue to Federal Way, for example, with runs faster and more frequent than available from local transit agencies. Fares will be slightly higher than Metro's.

Other express routes beginning Sunday: Everett-Lynnwood-Seattle,

Everett Mall-Bellevue, Lynnwood-Bellevue, SeaTac-West Seattle-Seattle, Pierce County-SeaTac and Lakewood (Pierce County)-Tacoma-Seattle.

Two routes already operating - a Bellevue-Seattle Express and a Seattle-Tacoma Express - will be taken over by Sound Transit on Sunday.

Some routes will have more than one bus number. The Everett Mall-Bellevue Express, for example, will have bus Nos. 530, 531 and 532.

Fares will be $1.25 to travel through one zone, $2 for two zones and $2.50 for three or more zones. Monthly passes will cost $45 for one zone, $72 for two zones and $82.50 for three zones.

Other fare combinations will be available for youths, seniors and the disabled. The agency also will accept a new PugetPass, a single pass that covers five transit agencies in three counties.

ST Express expects to carry about 5.6 million passengers next year and 11.7 million a year by 2010. For comparison, Metro sells about 80 million rides a year.

When ST Express is fully operational by 2006, it will have added 190 coaches to the regional transit fleet - an 11 percent jump in the number of regional buses.

Metro now has about 1,300 buses, Community Transit in Snohomish County has 291, and Pierce Transit in Pierce County has 207.

ST Express will cost about $342 million over 10 years, far less than light rail, which is expected to cost about $2 billion.

One example of the new routes' effects can be found on the Bellevue-Seattle route, one of the most heavily traveled corridors in the Puget Sound region. That run now is served by Metro Route 226 but will become Sound Transit bus No. 550 on Sunday. Instead of making numerous stops, the new route will pause only at the Bellevue Transit Center and the South Bellevue and Mercer Island park-and-ride lots before entering the Seattle bus tunnel. What's now a 38-minute trip is expected to drop to 30 minutes.

The $4 billion agency was approved by voters in 1996. A commuter-rail service known as the Sounder is expected to begin serving Tacoma, Seattle and Everett in 2001.

Linda Savage, who lives in Bellevue and commutes to her job in Seattle on Metro's Route 226, said she hopes service will improve under Sound Transit.

"I hope it's an improvement. It's overused and overcrowded," she said of the current bus. ------------------------------- Route details

Information about new Sound Transit bus routes is available at transit centers, park-and-ride lots, on buses, on the Web at www.stexpress.org or by telephone at 888-889-6368. ------------------------------- Kickoff celebration

Sound Transit Express kickoff celebrations will be from 10:30 a.m. to noon Sunday at five locations: the Tacoma Dome Station; the Ash Way Park & Ride next to Interstate 5 north of Lynnwood; the South Bellevue Park & Ride north of Interstate 90 on Bellevue Way Southeast; the Burien Transit Center, South 128th Street and Highway 509; and the Federal Way Park & Ride, South 324th Street west of I-5.

Former Seattle Mariners will host ceremonies at the Tacoma Dome and in Burien. Bill Stainton of KING-TV's "Almost Live" and the Thomas Jefferson High School band will appear at the Federal Way lot. KING-TV's John Curley and the Sammamish High School band will be at the South Bellevue lot. Former Mariner players and Everett AquaSox will be at the Ash Way lot.