More on Next Week’s I-90 Trouble

Stage 1, roughly Friday 7/18 through Monday 7/21

Last week Zach reported on the 7-day WSDOT construction project that will reduce Westbound I-90 to as little as one lane. The potential for epic backups, engulfing both transit and drivers, is obvious. I asked WSDOT Spokesman Travis Phelps and Traffic Engineer Mark Bandy what the exact implications were for transit, and what more could have been done.

The first half of the closure, Stage 1 depicted above, is “probably more impactful” than Stage 2, and it’s no accident that the bulk of this work will occur over the weekend. With the HOV lanes entirely closed, buses will merge into general traffic, thus discouraging their use at the point of maximum need for spatial efficiency. I asked Mr. Bandy if WSDOT would consider making one of the remaining lanes HOV, setting aside for the moment that the planned configuration withers to one lane for a short stretch.

He said in any project “we would assess if it made sense to make one of the lanes HOV,” but the agency’s experience was that to create compliance WSDOT would “have to paint it and put the markings down,” rather than use a sign or other simple measure. The restriping operation itself would be a matter of days, in support of a closure that will only amount to 3 or 4 days. “If we were talking about this configuration in place for 3 months we’d be having a different conversation,” Bandy said.

So Stage 1 will be a disaster; Stage 2 may be mildly better for transit. As a transit user,  if you can possibly delay your trip to the later part of the week, that would be wise.  The bad news is that I-90 buses will have to share the HOV lane with all mainline traffic when it withers down to one lane. It would be theoretically possible to instead divert all SOV traffic into the collector/distributor lanes and leave the HOV lane clear, but Mr. Phelps dismissed that as “difficult.” If there’s a saving grace for the 554 et al it’s that they’ll occupy the continuous lane and therefore have an advantage over merging traffic.

Stage 2, roughly Tuesday 7/22 through Thursday 7/24

For the 550, however, Stage 2 will be much better. Although it’ll have to share the Bellevue Way onramp with SOVs, Stage 2 injects it into the I-90 mainline after the merge, which will act as a meter.

Under normal conditions, buses in the afternoon peak ride in the HOV lane until it ends on the eastern shore of Mercer Island. There is usually some backup in that merge, and as buses cross across four stop-and-go lanes to serve the Park and Ride. Buses experience further delay getting back on I-90 from the stop. (In the morning peak, HOV lanes lead right into the express lanes and their own ramp to the P&R.)

With traffic on Mercer Island likely to be free-flowing, all of this delay is likely to improve. It would be dangerous to conclude that 550 flow will be better than normal in Stage 2, but there are countervailing forces that make it less than a total disaster.

The impacts will be different in each stage, and will differ for Bellevue Way and I-90 buses. And of course the scale of delays will largely depend on the ability of people to adjust. Fortunately, tolls will remain on 520 to prevent that bridge from grinding to a halt. But the advice for transit users is straightforward: delay your trips to the second half of the week or beyond, switch to 520 buses, or use a bike.


  1. BigDonLives says

    Attention poor people!

    You might lose your job because WSDOT doesn’t give a h00t! And the Seattle transit solution is to put you on buses or ride the Lexus Lanes on 520!

    • barman says

      “And the Seattle transit solution is to put you on buses”

      What else are they supposed to do? Go back in time and finish East Link 7 years early? Not close the bridge and let it collapse into the water? Hand out vouchers for helicopter rides? Put everyone affected in a Seattle hotel?

      Honest question.

      • Glenn in Portland says

        Maybe contract Ride the Ducks to provide amphibious service from the boat ramp on SE 40th Street to the Mercer Island Boat Launch? If the Newport Yacht Club will let anyone access the ramp, of course.

      • Glenn in Portland says

        They’re slow, but can’t be worse than what is going to happen to traffic.

        There is a company in the Netherlans building amphibious buses, but for tourist service. They have a very long staircase to get in.

  2. RossB says

    Sorry, I disagree. Stage one won’t be that bad, but stage two, depending on how they design it, will be terrible. Here is why:

    Stage one is a lot like the 520 bridge HOV lanes. Buses travel in their own lane, right up to the front of the line. Then there is a little bit of slowdown and congestion as things merge, then everyone moves faster, because there is no more merging. In this case, there is also a second merge, but that occurs within a few feet of the first merge. Buses will be delayed by the time it takes to travel the distance between the first and last merge, but that is it.

    Stage two, on the other hand, could be terrible. Regular cars will move into the HOV lane as soon as they are allowed. Depending on how far back they allow it, this means a much longer merge section. Also keep in mind that typically, in an unregulated merge (no HOV lanes) the fastest lane is usually the lane that is being removed. Drivers who are courteous merge early, but drivers who aren’t so nice wait until the last minute. This means that those in the lane that doesn’t go away gets “passed” by other drivers all the time (it may appear to be fair when the passing driver finally merges, but it isn’t). This is exactly what will happen to the HOV lane in stage two. A lot of drivers will scoot around the mess, and merge at the last possible moment. In other words, the HOV lane drivers (whether they are in an HOV or not) will be passed. This won’t happen — it can’t happen, legally — with stage one. But with stage two, it will be a lot like being in a SOV on 520. You wonder why you are going so slow, and then realize that it is because everyone is letting in HOVs right before the bridge.

    • VeloBusDriver says

      “Buses will be delayed by the time it takes to travel the distance between the first and last merge, but that is it.”

      Bellevue Way is notorious for backing up all the way to Main St on heavy traffic nights. The HOV lanes help since they allow buses to travel in the HOV / EB I90 lane on Bellevue Way for at least part of the 2.2 mile stop and go slog. That WSDOT/Bellevue haven’t figured out some way to let buses jump the queue is a class A cluster. Buses stuck in traffic do little to incentivize drivers to get out the car and saddle overburdened transit agencies with further costs in driver OT.

      WSDOT needs to stop saying, “It’s hard” and at least try to give transit and HOV 3+ priority. It’s not like this will be the last carmageddon we have to deal with…

      • John Bailo says

        I agree.

        This is a dire situation, and draconian measures are needed.

        I would do things like raise the 520 bridge tolls to $20 so that traffic remains the same.

        I would also seize an additional HOV lane temporarily for the trip around south lake Washington on 405 for use by transit and HOV 3+ only.

      • aw says

        John, those suggestions are nonsense. Regarding 520 tolls, the tolls are established by a defined process that, IIUC, is codified in law. Add to that, raising tolls to $20 might provide a windfall to the state, but it would lead to more diversion of traffic from 520. At this time we would want more people using 520, not less.

        Regarding the 405 HOV lanes, there are only three lanes on most of I-405 south. I’ve never heard of a configuration with two HOV lanes and one GP lane. You need to maintain a passing GP lane, especially on the Kennydale hill. It might be worthwhile to make the existing HOV lane 3+ and 24 hour, but that also would involve some process and signage changes. If WSDOT isn’t willing to do extra work in the project area for this one week closure, there’s no reason to expect they’d make bigger changes on another freeway.

        Regarding I-90, the project area has VMS and a variable speed zone. I wonder why the variable speed signs couldn’t indicate diamond lanes without bothering with pavement striping.

      • John Slyfield says

        A non trolling response would be that it’s time the federal government needs to fix the highway trust fund to make it more stable. The current way we pay for transit is not working. And it’s causing problems like this. It would be better if we fix the roads one lane at a time and do the whole bridge but instead we have to to it this way.

      • says

        “WSDOT needs to stop saying, “It’s hard” and at least try to give transit and HOV 3+ priority.” BWAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!! This is the Washington State Department of Moving Automobiles we’re talking about. When have they EVER done anything for transit without being forced to do it?

      • aw says

        Right, I meant to say the HOV lane. Are they replacing the expansion joint on that lane twice?

      • Kacie says

        They aren’t replacing the expansion joint there on the ramp at all; the actual work is further west. Presumably the ramp is closed in both phases to limit the merge points.

  3. Lloyd says

    Martin, could you please change the last word in the title from “Trouble” to “Repair” which would more accurately describe the work being done by the DOT? Trouble happens when we DON’T make these repairs to infrastructure.

  4. Sam says

    I’m not joking when I say this week-long traffic mess will be healthy for people. If it convinces even just a handful of people in the future to live close to work, it will have been worth it. We enable and subsidize commuters too much. A little dose of pain might make people pick a more sustainable, shorter commute the next time they move. So I say good. And while they’re sitting in traffic, I hope they remember, the only person they have to blame for your situation is themselves.

    • says

      “If it convinces even just a handful of people in the future to live close to work, it will have been worth it. We enable and subsidize commuters too much. A little dose of pain might make people pick a more sustainable, shorter commute the next time they move.”

      Who are you, and what have you done with Sam? Oh wait, you probably still don’t want to make it easier or possible to live closer to where you work…

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