King County Metro Transit

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 2/21/2020
  • Essay 20968

King County Metro Transit, originally named simply Metro Transit, has operated King County's bus and transit systems since its creation in 1973. This new agency took over the Seattle Transit System's old bus system and a privately owned suburban bus system, thus becoming King County's first county-wide transit system. Metro Transit quickly became the biggest success story in Seattle's transit history, and by 1980 ridership had more than doubled. Metro Transit introduced articulated (bending) buses to increase capacity. It built suburban transit centers and park-and-ride lots. In the 1980s it embarked on an ambitious plan to create a downtown bus tunnel, which opened in 1990. In 1994, Metro Transit merged with King County and acquired the name King County Metro Transit. It continues to provide transit routes into nearly every corner of Seattle and King County.

King County Says 'No' to Rail

The agency known as Metro, officially called the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, was born in 1958 -- yet it originally lacked a transit component. It was created by voters as a sewage and water treatment agency, with the goal of cleaning up Lake Washington.

However, within a few years it became obvious to proponents of Metro that transportation was an equally urgent problem, and the solution needed to encompass not only Seattle, but its growing suburbs. At the time, the city's Seattle Transit System was suffering from red ink and decreasing ridership. In the suburbs, the privately owned suburban bus system -- confusingly named the Metropolitan Transit Corporation, although it had nothing to do with Metro – was in even worse shape.

James R. (Jim) Ellis (1921-2019) and other Metro proponents put a proposition before voters in 1962 that would authorize Metro to perform "the additional function of public transportation" (Crowley manuscript, p. 45). Suburban interests opposed it. Voters shot that proposal down by a wide margin.

Ellis and Metro did not give up. In 1968, they proposed an ambitious package of 12 bond issues called Forward Thrust. The biggest component, by far, was a new Metro rapid transit plan that included 45 miles of rail. On February 13, 1968, voters rejected the transit portion of Forward Thrust. In 1970, Metro tried again with a second Forward Thrust vote. This time, the transit portion was defeated by an even bigger margin.

At this point, King County was stuck with its old bus systems, which were on the verge of collapse. The Seattle Transit System's ridership sank to 33 million at the start of the 1970s -- a whopping 100 million below what it had been at its peak in 1944. The system was in a "spiral of failure," in the words of transit journalist and historian Bob Lane (Lane, Better Than Promised). It was continually forced to cut service, which bit into ridership even more. In the suburbs, the transit situation was even more desperate. By 1970 only about 4,000 people in the suburbs commuted by bus -- a number that explains not only why the Metropolitan Transit Corporation was losing money, but also why the county's freeways and highways were jammed. That year King County was forced to subsidize the Metropolitan Transit Corporation's "ragtag fleet" of coaches in order to keep them afloat (Lane, Better Than Promised).

Consensus Builds for '1980 Plan'

By 1972, public attitudes had subtly shifted, as traffic jams proliferated and environmental concerns grew. Ellis and his allies were encouraged enough to make one more attempt to put Metro in the mass transit business. This time, they proposed a local option sales tax, which required only a 50 percent majority, not a 60 percent super-majority like the Forward Thrust bond issues. The proposal's backers came up with a new strategy. They emphasized a more populist approach and recruited neighborhood opinion leaders to help plan the new system and to advocate for a yes vote. They held more than 50 meetings in which citizens could make suggestions about bus schedules. Thousands did. "People drew their own bus routes," said Aubrey Davis (1917-2013), the Mercer Island mayor who chaired the Metro Council's Transit Committee (Lane, Better Than Promised). 

After all of these sessions, a plan dubbed the "1980 Plan" emerged. The most obvious difference between this and the failed 1968 and 1970 plans was a complete lack of rail -- this was a bus plan. It called for acquiring the Seattle Transit System and the private suburban system, merging them, and purchasing 550 new buses. Fares would be 20 cents, with another 10-cent charge after crossing a certain zone line. This was cheaper than some current Seattle fares, and cheaper by half than most Metropolitan Transit Corporation fares. The plan included a ridership goal that seemed unrealistic. It projected 54.3 million riders per year by 1980. Seattle Transit was now down to about 30 million riders per year and headed downhill. 

Backers began to notice some promising shifts in public sentiment. An army of volunteers was quietly building support for the proposal. As the Metro vote approached on September 19, 1972, these volunteers converged on the precincts most likely to vote yes. However, the city still hadn't recovered from its economic slump and supporters were privately resigned to another defeat, since they were asking county voters to increase their sales tax from 5 percent to 5.3 percent. Just before the vote, King County Executive John Spellman (1926-2018) met with Jim Ellis to come up with a Plan B, on the assumption that defeat was inevitable. The two men privately agreed that King County would probably have to take over the transit system.

Then to the surprise of nearly everyone, King County voters gave a resounding "yes" to Metro Transit, by a vote of 115,398 to 80,171. The win was credited to hard work, but one supporter said the main reason was "we had a good product" (Lane, "County-Wide Bus System"). An immensely relieved Jim Ellis called it a "historic go signal for transit" (Lane, "County-Wide Bus System"). The Seattle Times editorial page called the vote a "comeback for Metro transit" and said that "stripping down its rapid-rail transit plan … to a more modest all-bus model helped achieve the comeback win" ("Two Election Comebacks").

The startled but happy Metro officials had exactly 103 days to take over the entire county's transit system. "The ant woke up one day and discovered it had swallowed an elephant," said Chuck Collins, a Spellman aide who would eventually become the Metro Transit director (Crowley manuscript). Metro had only 248 employees and was preparing to take over a Seattle Transit System with more than 1,000 workers. One of the first things on the to-do list was settling on a name for the new system. Several acronyms were suggested, such as KART for King Area Rapid Transit and SMART for Seattle Metropolitan Area Rapid Transit. A few silly names were thrown around, such as Komet, Kismet, and Rainwater Highball. Eventually Metro settled on the most mundane yet logical choice: Metro Transit.

Metro and city officials negotiated all through the fall and winter, and eventually settled on a compromise price of $6.5 million for the Seattle Transit system. The price for the old Metropolitan Transit's suburban system was set at $1.2 million. These prices were well within what Metro had projected before the vote.

Metro was now the proud owner of what Seattle historian Walt Crowley (1947-2008) called a "motley fleet of buses and trolleys" (Crowley manuscript). Many of these buses were destined for the junkyard within the next few years. Metro had applied for, and received, a federal Urban Mass Transit grant of $4.5 million, partly to purchase a fleet of modern buses. At the same time, Metro was negotiating new contracts with both Seattle Transit and Metropolitan Transit employees. They were all guaranteed their jobs, or at least "comparable positions," with Metro Transit. Not only did the company need these experienced drivers, they were bound by law to keep them.

Innovations, Articulated Buses, Free Rides

The merger of the two organizations did not always go smoothly. Bus drivers had legitimate concerns about whether an organization with experience mostly in sewage and pollution control could understand their problems. "It was a shotgun marriage," said Aubrey Davis, who would become a tireless proponent of regional mass transit and later the regional administrator of the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration (Lane, Better Than Promised). Yet Metro had the confidence that comes from innocence. Staff members learned as they went.

As the date for the changeover, January 1, 1973, approached, drivers were issued new Metro uniforms. Metro Transit stickers were slapped on the old buses. Metro Director C. V. "Tom" Gibbs was apprehensive when he and his wife went out to the bus barns early on New Year's Day to see the drivers off. Fortunately, buses pulled out on time, the system ran well, and Gibbs breathed a sigh of relief because "we had climbed the mountain" (Crowley manuscript).

Carle H. Salley, a Pittsburgh bus driver turned Allegheny County transit administrator, was chosen after a nationwide search to become Metro's first transit director. Metro applied for and received a federal Urban Mass Transit Administration grant of $86.3 million -- "the largest sum ever requested for rubber-wheeled transit" (Crowley manuscript). This grant paid for park-and-ride lots and other system components, and also funded buses that featured lower floors, bigger windows, more power, and, most important, the ability to bend in the middle. These "articulated" buses, which would allow 72 seats instead of 45, were familiar in Europe, but mostly unknown in the U.S.

Other new ideas continued to be encouraged. One idealistic young city worker proposed a startling idea: making the buses free. While that would never pencil out, other city officials began to warm to a modified plan: creating a ride-free zone in downtown Seattle. Mayor Uhlman liked the idea and pitched it to Metro, which liked it as well -- as long as the city compensated Metro for it. The "Magic Carpet" free downtown zone, as it was called, was launched in September 1973 and turned out to be a huge success. It remained a staple of Metro's system for decades until it ended in 2012, by which time Seattle's transit picture had been utterly transformed by light rail.

A dedicated HOV lane made its debut in fall 1973 on State Route 520 in Redmond. Although this played a small role in easing East Side congestion, it had symbolic significance. Highways and transit, in Crowley's words, "had finally made peace with each other" (Crowley manuscript). In 1973 the Arab oil embargo created an instant demand for more transit, as people scrambled to find enough gas for their cars. Total Metro ridership took an 8 percent leap.

Metro's ridership increased by another 2.7 million passengers in 1974, despite a two-week drivers strike. It moved ahead on its 1980 Plan by opening the first Freeway Flyer express bus station in Montlake. Meantime, the Metro Transit staff moved into its first permanent offices in the Pioneer Building at First Avenue and Yesler Street, a move that carried historical echoes. It was the same building that once housed Stone & Webster's Seattle Electric Company, the city's old streetcar company.

Salley was succeeded in 1976 by Chuck Collins, who had been instrumental in the transition to Metro Transit. By most measures, Salley's tenure had been a rousing success. Ridership had gone up 23 percent over three years, and Metro Transit had become firmly established as a popular and efficient public service. It was easily one of the most successful periods in the region's transit history.

Ridership Booms

One of the first actions of Collins' tenure was a fare overhaul, promised in the 1972 vote and approved by the Metro Council in 1976. Instead of a baffling 30 zones, there would now be only two zones, inside and outside the Seattle city limits. Fares were 30 cents for the first zone, 20 cents for the other. Senior citizens and disabled riders had to pay only a dime. Transfers were good for any bus, any direction, within an hour. It was simpler for everyone, riders and drivers.

In 1976, the federal government came through with money for new bus shelters, new buses, and new park-and-ride lots. When Metro Transit opened its Federal Way Park & Ride in 1979, it was filled to its 800-space capacity by the next day. Metro also committed to having a fully wheelchair-accessible fleet, and became the first in the nation to do so.

Meanwhile, a venerable kind of transit vehicle, the trackless trolley, was enjoying a resurgence. This was an electric, rubber-tired bus that was powered by overhead wires, and it had long been part of Seattle's fleet. In 1977 Metro began modernizing and expanding its entire trackless trolley system. It scrapped the old fleet, bought 109 new rubber-tired trolleys, and built 23 miles of new trolley routes over the next few years. Seattle was one of the few cities to fully embrace trackless trolleys, largely because they were cleaner and quieter than diesel. They were also superior at climbing Seattle's steep hills. Today, trackless trolleys remain a prominent part of Metro's transit fleet and a visible reminder of Seattle's trolley legacy.

The seemingly unattainable goal of 54.3 million riders by 1980 was exceeded a year early, as ridership hit 58.3 million in 1979. Then it rocketed to 66 million in 1980, partly because gasoline prices had once again spiked during the Iran hostage crisis, and partly because of Metro's innovations. Seattle's traffic was still bad but it would have been worse with those 66 million commuters in cars instead of buses. Metro had more than doubled ridership in its seven years of existence. "We built a transit system out of what had become dust," said Davis, looking back on those years (Glickstein).

Bumps in the Road

Despite unprecedented success, Metro was still in political and financial peril. In 1979 the King County Council put an initiative on the ballot to merge the King County government and Metro, which would spell the end of Metro as an independent agency. Metro supporters came up with an obvious and effective slogan -- "If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It" (Crowley manuscript). Voters evidently saw no need to "fix" the only agency in Seattle's history that had made transit work. They voted the initiative down by a nearly three-to-one margin.

A new plan called MetroTRANSITions had recommitted Metro to an all-bus (as opposed to rail) strategy in the 1980s. Metro also announced a new goal of 120 million passengers by 1990. This goal was not met, for several reasons. The earlier gains had been driven partly by gasoline crises, which had subsided. Also, suburban commuters were no longer heading exclusively into downtown Seattle. They were heading from suburb to suburb -- from Kent to jobs in Redmond, say. Designing bus routes to serve a vast, shifting host of "inter-suburban" commuters was a challenge. Ridership declined in 1981, for the first time in Metro's history. It dropped again in 1982, to 63.5 million.

Around this time, another urgent problem needed fixing. Too many buses were crammed onto too few Seattle downtown streets, with little sidewalk space to load and unload them. Second and Fourth avenues hosted a rolling parade of buses, which made about 420 trips through downtown every day during peak hours. This nose-to-tail line of Metro buses was now perceived, in Crowley's words, "to be part of the downtown congestion problem, not its solution" (Crowley manuscript). 

But what to do about it? That question sparked a three-year debate fiercer than any of the previous debates about downtown transit. At the beginning various factions proposed a number of solutions. Some suggested a buses-only trench, running below grade through downtown. This was derided as a "diesel ditch" (Crowley manuscript). Others proposed the opposite of a trench -- a raised "transit spine."

Eventually, these ideas fell by the wayside leaving the eventual solution, a downtown transit tunnel. This was an idea that had originally been floated halfheartedly in the 1930s by Mayor John Dore (1881-1938); fruitlessly in 1953 by County Engineer D. L. Evans; and presciently in 1968 by Forward Thrust. A tunnel under 3rd Avenue or 4th Avenue would help solve the problem of bus-clogged streets. Metro believed that technology had solved one of the main arguments against it, that gasoline and conventional diesel buses created too many dangerous fumes to run in a tunnel. Dual-propulsion buses -- hybrids of diesel and electric power -- could operate like conventional diesel buses until they got to the tunnel. Then the buses could hook up to a trolley pole and switch to electricity. After protracted and contentious debates, the Seattle City Council reversed its earlier opposition and voted unanimously for the bus tunnel on October 31, 1983. The Metro Council formally endorsed it three days later and applied to the federal Urban Mass Transit authorities for funding.

Construction of the Seattle Bus Tunnel (today called the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel) dominated Metro for the last half of the 1980s. Detractors staged last-ditch attempts in 1986 and 1987 to stop the project, citing high costs and dwindling bus ridership, but the giant boring machines began their slow, laborious work in March 1987. It became mired in controversy, over rising costs and a damaging incident dubbed Granitegate. Some of the granite purchased for the tunnel had been sourced from apartheid-ruled South Africa, despite a Metro Council ban on such purchases.

The Seattle Bus Tunnel opened for regular service on September 15, 1990, on time and within 5 percent of its original budget. This prompted the construction manager to boast that "this is absolutely unprecedented for a transit project in the United States" (Crowley manuscript). Unfortunately, the fancy new dual-propulsion buses proved to be unreliable and created some headaches for Metro Transit in those first years. Before long, technology had advanced so much that Metro Transit was able to buy battery-powered hybrids that did not need wires or trolley poles at all. They could switch instantly from diesel to electricity. Overall, the tunnel worked mostly as intended, removing more than 500 buses per day from the downtown streets.

Metro Merges With King County

Meanwhile, Metro ridership had continued to slip in the mid-1980s, hitting a low of 61.4 million in 1987. But thanks to a reinvigorated marketing campaign and a booming regional economy, it began creeping up again, reaching 73.4 million passengers by 1990. New park-and-ride lots had opened in South Federal Way, the Renton Highlands, and Kirkland. Transit centers had opened in Bellevue and Aurora Village. 

In the early 1990s, Metro remained highly regarded by its peers: It was named several times as the best major transit system in the U.S. by the American Public Transportation Association. It was also well regarded by commuters, certainly by Seattle historical standards. Yet at the beginning of the decade, doubts were being raised about whether the Metro Council was a truly democratic institution, since it was a federated system, with smaller towns having the same voting power as the bigger cities.

After several court battles a solution was proposed: A merger of Metro and King County under an expanded King County Council. Voters rejected this plan on a first vote in 1991, but a similar merger plan was approved in a 1992 vote. It called for a 13-member King County Council to assume all of Metro's functions. The official Metro-King County union was consummated on January 1, 1994, and since that day, the transit system's official name has been King County Metro Transit -- although most people still shorten it to Metro Transit, or simply, Metro. It became a department of King County, reporting to the county executive. In 1996 it became a division of the King County Department of Transportation.

That winter, massive snow and ice storms paralyzed transit service for days. Even during the streetcar era, snow had routinely disrupted Seattle transit service -- but this was a whopper. A total of 250 Metro buses were stranded on hills and snowbanks on the morning of December 27, 1996. Snow and ice kept coming for the next two days. On December 29, 1996, Metro had to cancel service for the first time in its history. More than half of Metro's 1,100 buses were stuck on hills or otherwise out of service. Articulated buses proved to be especially unsuited to snow. Trackless trolleys stalled because ice built up on the overhead wires. Fortunately, this happened on a Sunday, the quietest day for transit. Service was gradually restored as the work week began.

Ridership continued to trend upward, reaching 96.6 million by 1999. King County Metro had inaugurated a Six-Year Plan in 1995 to reconfigure its service to reflect a new reality: Multiple destination hubs were needed, not just downtown Seattle.

Metro, Sound Transit Look to the Future

Meanwhile, a new regional transit agency, Sound Transit, made its debut in the 1990s. Sound Transit encompassed three counties -- King, Pierce, and Snohomish. With the passage of its Sound Move ballot measure in 1996, Sound Transit began working on a plan that would tie Tacoma, Seattle, and Everett together in a system that would include light rail, commuter rail, and intercity buses.

Sound Transit would complement King County Metro Transit, but by no means replace it. Metro would continue to be the vital transit provider throughout the neighborhoods of Seattle and its suburbs. King County Metro Transit worked alongside Sound Transit as it developed through the 2000s, in a partnership perhaps best illustrated by Metro's 2000 agreement to transfer the Seattle Bus Tunnel to Sound Transit for use as its light-rail tunnel. Metro had built the tunnel with eventual light-rail use in mind. In 2005, the newly renamed Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel was shut down for two years to convert it to light rail.

In another demonstration of partnership, Metro, Sound Transit, and the other regional transit agencies agreed in 2000 to accept each other's transfers, making intercity Puget Sound travel easier for commuters -- and eventually setting the stage today's regional ORCA transit card. King County Metro Transit upgraded its fleet throughout this era. In 2001, it installed new catalytic soot filters on its diesel buses to lower emissions. In 2002, it purchased 100 trackless trolley electric buses (in 2015 it would purchase another 174). In 2003, it signed a deal to buy 213 hybrid diesel-electric buses, and within two decades would begin switching over to today's battery-electric buses.

In 2001, it launched the "second biggest service change" in the agency's history, when it added an additional 115,000 annual hours of transit service, mostly to the burgeoning East Side suburbs ("Metro Transit Milestones"). Not all of its ridership was by land. Metro King County's Water Taxi service, carrying commuters across Elliott Bay, had initiated service in 1997. By 2018 the Water Taxi was carrying more than 664,000 passengers a year. 

By 2010, total Metro ridership was up to 109.6 million. That year, Metro launched a new bus service called RapidRide that mimicked light-rail by running on fixed routes at least every 10 minutes. "With the RapidRide buses, we're shifting from the era of a spiderweb of relatively low-capacity bus services to one where we have trunk lines of high-capacity, very frequent, don't-need-to-look-at-the-schedule service," said Dow Constantine (b. 1961), who, as King County Executive, was Metro's overall boss (Constantine interview). Constantine wanted Metro to evolve as the county's "mobility agency" and he envisioned a Metro that asks and answers the question: What is it going to take for us to give you the most mobility, using all of the region's assets? (Constantine interview).

By 2017 more and more people were flocking to this growing, interconnected system. A study showed that 48.4 percent of the central Seattle workforce arrived at work via transit, during an era when transit use was generally stagnant in most other cities. King County Metro's ridership would climb to 122.4 million by 2018.

Well into the Sound Transit era, Metro's buses and trackless trolleys remained an essential part of the lives of millions of commuters. Ron Sims (b. 1948), former King County Executive, used an apt metaphor to describe the region's new transit network: Sound Transit's Link light rail was the spine, but King County Metro Transit was the vital ribcage.


This essay is condensed in part from: Jim Kershner and the HistoryLink Staff, Transit: The Story of Public Transportation in the Puget Sound Region (Seattle: HistoryLink/Documentary Media, 2019). Other sources: Walt Crowley, "Routes: An Interpretive History of Public Transportation in Metropolitan Seattle," manuscript dated 1993, Call No. 388.41322 C886, Seattle Public Library, Seattle, Washington; Walt Crowley, Routes: A Brief History of Public Transportation in Metropolitan Seattle (Seattle: Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, 1993); Bob Lane, Better Than Promised: An Informal History of the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (Seattle: King County Department of Metropolitan Services, 1995), copy available on King County website (; Bob Lane, "Out With the Old, In With Metro Transit," Seattle Daily Times, January 1, 1973, p. A-1; Bob Lane, "Metro Transit's Phones Bus-y During Weekend," Ibid., January 1, 1973, p. C-10; Deborah Nelson, Eric Nalder, Lily Eng, Susan Byrnes, "Storm Bested Buses, Hills," Ibid., December 31, 1996, p. B1; "Metro Transit Milestones," Metro King County website, accessed February 1, 2020 (; Jim Kershner interview with Dow Constantine, April 18, 2018, audio recording and transcript in possession of the author; Bob Lane, "Bus Plan Hinges on Voters," Seattle Daily Times, September 17, 1972, p. E4; Bob Lane, "County-Wide Bus System: A Go Signal," Ibid, September 20, 1972, p. A1; "Two Election Comebacks," Ibid., September 20, 1972, p. A12; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Aubrey Davis (1917-2013)" (by Don Glickstein), (accessed February 5, 2020); Mike Lindblom, "Transit Use Up in Central Seattle," The Seattle Times, February 15, 2018. p. B1; Jim Kershner interview with Ron Sims, November 13, 2018, audio recording and transcript in possession of the author.

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