Plans to delay a new Highlands bus route could mean the city's freebee bus, which runs through the business districts, will continue to be free until 2013.
The city originally planned to axe the free fare program in September to help pay for the new route.
Citing the bad economy and even worse timing, Port Blakely Communities pulled out its initial commitment to pay for about half the program.
"In the real estate business, it's been Armageddon," said John Shaw, who represented Port Blakely on the issue.
In a tentative agreement with the members of the transportation committee, Port Blakely agreed to an 18-month delay of the program, pushing it from Sept. 2011 to Feb. 2013.
In the meantime, the transportation committee supports keeping a free farebox for Route 200. The whole proposal goes to a City Council vote in March.
When Port Blakely made a commitment to the project in 2008, it was expecting the Issaquah Highlands would have a thriving retail, theater and grocery store, Shaw said.
The economy halted, and so did development. The area only has about a quarter of the projected retail space, he said.
With the opening of Swedish Hospital, the YWCA and apartments in the next two years, that's about to change.
"In that time, a lot can happen, and a lot is likely to happen," Shaw said.
For Port Blakely, supporting the new route wasn't just an issue of money.
The project put forward for September was scaled back from the original plan, president Rene Ancinas wrote in a letter to Mayor Ava Frisinger.
Talus and Highlands residents wouldn't be able to reach Lake Sammamish State Park, Costco, Front Street or Gilman Village without making a bus change.
During non-peak hours, the buses would only run every hour, and the fare increases on Route 200 would cause many to quit riding the bus altogether, Ancinas wrote.
While councilmember Fred Butler was open to tweaking the route, he was concerned that Port Blakely wanted to entirely redraw it.
"This has not been something done in a vacuum," he said, adding that King County Metro designed it.
"No, we don't want to start all over, we want to be partners in transit, but we want it to be the best that it can be," Shaw said.
The timing for Port Blakely was also amiss.
Without more development, ridership would be scarce, Shaw said.
If the route doesn't meet certain performance standards in three years, Metro could pull it off the map, he said.
Waiting also gives the city more time to find more financial partners, such as the Swedish or Bellevue College.
"It might be a win-win rather than rushing to provide service," said councilmember Joshua Schaer.
In the end, Schaer opposed the extension, because the city had made a commitment to offer the service.
In return for the extension, Port Blakely agreed to give a written commitment to the project in 2013.
"We want to be a part of this partnership, and we want to be good partners," Shaw said.
Celeste Gracey can be reached at 425-391-0363, ext. 5052.
Contact Issaquah Reporter Staff Writer Celeste Gracey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 425-391-0363.