Coming soon: A bus ride across Olympia in 10 stops — for free

Intercity Transit on the move

Intercity Transit is the public transportation agency in Thurston County.
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Intercity Transit is the public transportation agency in Thurston County.

Intercity Transit plans to roll out a new bus route next month designed to get riders between Capital Mall in west Olympia and the Martin Way Park & Ride in Lacey in about 30 minutes — for free.

That same ride takes 55 to 70 minutes now, including more than 30 stops and a transfer at the Olympia Transit Center. The new route will run every 15 minutes weekdays during peak hours, about 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. and 3 to 6 p.m., and make about 10 stops.

Faster, more direct service was the sort of thing IT proposed last year when it asked voters to approve a sales and use tax increase. This trial, called the One, will be mostly paid for using a four-year, $4.5 million grant from state Department of Transportation.

The service is meant to address complaints IT heard from the public ahead of last year’s vote, said IT Development Director Eric Phillips: that buses are slow, routes are indirect, and paying fares is time-consuming and confusing, which can discourage ridership.

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“The passenger boards, has the ‘How’s it going for you?’ exchange, ‘Let me find my change, let me get my pass,’” Phillips said. “We heard from a lot people, ‘Can you do anything to make it faster?’”

With fares covering less than 10 percent of IT’s costs, Phillips said the One is a chance to see if fare-free service pays off in the form of faster travel times and increased ridership.

Other changes in the name of time saving: Passengers will board in the front and back of the bus, and no bikes will be allowed since loading and unloading slows things down.

In downtown Olympia, buses will skip the Olympia Transit Center, instead stopping on Fourth Avenue East without pulling over, since getting in and out of traffic can also slow them down. On State Avenue East, the traffic signal will give priority to westbound buses, letting them jump ahead of other traffic.

Eventually IT hopes to get traffic signal prioritization — when signals know a bus is coming and time the lights to keep buses moving — along Martin Way.

If all goes well, Phillips said IT could look to expand this sort of faster service to other busy corridors such as Capital Boulevard Southeast, Division Street Northwest and farther east on Martin Way.

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Riders waiting at the Olympia Transit Center this week told The Olympian they will welcome faster service.

“Oh yeah,” said Stephanie Morgan, who rides the bus from home in Lacey to work on Harrison Avenue Northwest in Olympia. “I leave an hour early every day to get to work on time.”

Josh Springer said the One wouldn’t help him personally, but he likes improvement that could convince more people to take public transit.

“There could be 20 people on the bus instead of 20 cars on the road,” he said.

The One is expected to hit the road in mid to late October. More service changes, including earlier and later trips to Tacoma, more weekend trips to Yelm, increased Sunday service, and increased weekday frequency on certain Olympia and Lacey routes start Sept. 22.

A much-anticipated route to northeast Lacey is slated to start in March 2020.