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From a 10-year-old rider to head of King County Metro, one man’s 50 year transit journey

A Black man in a gray suit stands at a podium labeled "King County Metro." Three men and a woman stand behind him in front of signs and two buses, one that displays "I'm Electric."
Thomas Hawthorne
/
King County Metro
King County Metro General Manager Terry White speaks at the unveiling of new all-electric buses at King County Metro South Base in Tukwila, Wa. on March 30, 2022. Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell and King County Executive Dow Constantine stand behind him.

Terry White was 10 when he started riding the bus alone. He grew up in the Rainier Vista projects; his single mother had gotten polio as a child and couldn’t drive.

"So you got the 10-year-old who is going out into the world a little nervous. But, you know, she said, 'Hey, sit up front. Make eye contact with operators. You'll be fine,'" White said.

It was 1973 – the year King County Metro was born, rising from the ashes of the crumbling Seattle Transit System, transforming into a bus agency serving the suburbs and the city.

Today — 50 years later — it’s the eighth largest bus agency in the nation, but before 1973, Seattle Transit was bleeding money and losing ridership. County voters approved a measure to let "the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle" — a governmental entity better known as "Metro," which had been created in 1958 to focus on sewage treatment and cleaning up Lake Washington — meld Seattle Transit System and a suburban transit corporation under their banner. King County Metro started service on January 1st, 1973.

John Helm was a driver for Seattle Transit System, and he remembers the dilapidated fleet Metro inherited.

"Some of them were were from World War II era, and then the rest of them were from the 1950s," he said. "We had trolleys that were probably 40 years old."

But to White, it was "kind of cool."

"The trolley buses, I do remember them seeming to be very old," White said. "But, you know, in some ways that was kind of poetic. Novel, or what have you."

White got to know the bus drivers on Route 7, and they started buying him breakfast every morning at King Donuts. He’d help them change their route signage — back then, there was a route message board inside that you could adjust with a crank — and they let him keep his 20 cent fare.

"I remember going home and telling my mom she was right about putting me on a bus by myself, number one," White said. "And number two, I needed to figure out how to become a bus driver at some point in life."

Today, all those old buses have been replaced, and the first electric buses have been introduced to the fleet. By 2035, the goal is for all of them to be electric. Bus driver John Helm stayed at Metro more than 50 years, switching to trains in 2009 and becoming one of the first light rail operators.

As for White, at 24, he got his first job with King County Metro as a telephone operator. He worked his way up through the ranks until in 2020, he was named general manager.

In that time King County Metro went from a cobbled-together combo of buses and trolleys to the eighth-largest bus agency in the nation.

Before the pandemic hit, Metro had around 400,000 average weekday riders. That dropped to 100,000 in 2020, and it was still around 225,000 in November 2022.

King County Metro has faced adapting its service to complement a region where lots of people aren't commuting in the morning and evening five days a week. White said what has stayed steady, and even shown an increase since 2020, are the off-hours — "the swings, the graveyards, the weekends."

And Metro has faced controversy, especially in the last few years when the agency has been hit with allegations of racism in its ranks, including a lawsuit.

"Yes, I have experienced that in my career and growth," said White, who is Black, "and I've also experienced the evolution of an organization as working hard to come to grips with its past."

White retired before the agency’s 50th anniversary on Jan. 1. But he said he’s going to keep riding the metro bus.

This story originally aired on KNKX on Dec. 28, 2022.

Scott Greenstone started off working at his community college newspaper before interning at NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered and covering homelessness for The Seattle Times. He co-produced the “Outsiders” podcast with KNKX, which was named one of TIME’s top 10 podcasts of 2020.
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