I really don’t care whether we have HOV 3+, HOV 5+, or transit only lanes on the 520 bridge replacement. Even 3+ will keep transit flowing, and if it turns out there’s a problem, we can change it to 5+ later.

I especially don’t care about putting rail on the bridge. There is no plan to connect it to anything. Whatever we build now will almost definitely turn out in the long run to be in the wrong place, or installed the wrong way. That’s a great way to kill future transit ballot measures – opponents can just point and laugh.

There are two things I care about in the 520 debate.

We will eventually add rail transit to 520. My best guess is that we’ll build from Ballard to the UW, and eventually extend it to Redmond. That’s a good idea, and I think we all agree we should make sure the bridge can handle rail later. The big problem is going to be whether the later transit investment will require buying a bunch of the bridge from WSDOT again, like Sound Transit is having to do with I-90. We can prevent that.

So, point one: Specifically call out that design features and capacity for transit are paid for with non-18th Amendment funds (such as tolling), and are dedicated to transit. This should, at the very least, cover the HOV lanes, so they can, if necessary, be turned into real BRT, or even light rail.

Point two: We should keep the Montlake flyer stop. That said, if we have to lose it, the midday and nighttime service that people currently use there needs to be replaced. We need UW-Redmond, UW-Kirkland, and UW-Bellevue service to keep us from screwing UW students, faculty, and staff – not to mention patients and game-fans. That means Sound Transit’s new route 542 would need to run from 5am to 11pm seven days a week. The 540 would have to run on weekends and late at night. If the legislature is choosing to remove the flyer stop, they need to mitigate the loss with dedicated transit funding.

I think the other debates about transit on the bridge are distracting us from these two immediate issues.

81 Replies to “HOV 3+ And Transit Later, With Two Caveats”

  1. I agree on both points. First, the light rail track nonsense. King County installed light rail track in the bus tunnel yeras in advance of light rail. It turned out to be unusable and had to be torn up anyway to adjust the platform height. Assuming we won’t be building rail on this bridge for at least 20 years, there’s no real value to sticking unused rails on highway lanes (and wouldn’t they be slippery when the bridge gets wet?). Secondly, I see tons of people using the flyer stops during morning and evening peak hours. It wouldn’t make sense to remove them.

    1. If I remember correctly from when the rail was first installed in the Seattle tunnel, it didn’t really matter whether it was done right or not — putting in rail of any sort got additional funding that made the tunnel project feasible.

      Even if they’d known the rail would have to be pulled back out, they would still have installed it to make it a multi-modal, “rail compatible” facility.

      Nothing unique there — cities use bike lanes or sidewalks to get grants that help fund street projects; they design “upgrades” that roll in as many deferred maintenance items as they can get away with. In short, they tailor projects to meet funding qualifications, not just actual tranportation demand.

      Don’t be surprised if it turns out there’s some similar incentive to put rail that won’t be used onto new facilities such as the 520 bridge.

      1. I have never heard that. I’d love to know what additional funding we got for putting track in it.

      2. I very specifically recall that the decision to install rail was made at the last possible second – basically after heavy construction was concluded.

      3. It was for show. It was a political decision at the last minute. I congratulate the project manager for not going overboard. Made it easier to retrofit.

      4. Putting rail in the tunnel cost extra money which the Seattle City Council approved. I forget who the councilman was that pushed it through. But hey, compared to the wasted money on the South African granite it was chump change. I’m sure the bigger expense was for ST to have to go back and tear it out.

      5. Thanks Zed, yes it seems it was Benson. Visionary on the waterfront streetcar but way off base on rail in the tunnel. It’s truly unfortunate that the water front streetcar didn’t survive.

      6. Don’t blame George Benson for the problems with the rail in the tunnel. He didn’t shoose the low-bid HIGHWAY contractor who had no business building anything with rail in it.

      7. Someone had to tell the contractor what to build. And someone had to ensure the contractor built what they were supposed to build, the way it was supposed to be built.

  2. The good thing about this is that now their is political space to push the legislature for adjustments to accommodate the pieces you’re talking about. If there is a risk of the 520 bridge blowing up in their face also they may be willing to work out some adjustments where they might not have before.

    I think its also about starting to apply pressure against the general pro-roads mindset. Even if this effort fails it advances the discussion and makes it front and center among the public.

    1. I agree, and I appreciate what the mayor is doing in that respect. We do need to talk a lot more often (and with more general forcefulness) about not building any more roads.

      1. Yup – the overriding question (for most highway projects, for the rest of this century) ought to be: Why are we (re)building this highway? And in this particular case, why is it being rebuilt almost to pre-1960s standards in terms of transit inclusion, rather than for the 2060 s?

  3. I thought that having cars mixed in with buses in a HOV land meant that the bridge needed to be much wider if it was still going to have the Flyer stops. So if you care about the flyer stops then don’t you have to care that it is a transit lane not a transit/HOV land (or be willing to pave over half of Montlake).

    1. We can readily keep the Montlake Flyer stop if we kick carpools out of the center lanes any place east of there. Then buses can simply stop in-lane. Add some platforms on either side with appropriate access and other features, and we’re good to go. At least for that particular problem.

      The alternative is 9 lanes across Portage Bay, which isn’t going to happen.

      1. You’re essentially correct, but as long as we’re using 18th Amendment funds, we can’t kick carpools out of those lanes.

      2. We’ll be using a variety of funds, only some of which are 18th Amendment funds. Regardless, is this policy written anywhere, or is there a precedent, or does it follow from something else?

      3. It’s not a policy – it’s in the state constitution that gas taxes are for highways. The supreme court has held that transit facilities are not highways.

      4. Hey Ben, do you have a case name/number or at least a ballpark on when the case was heard/decided? Thanks!

      5. Ben is right. His opinions are constructive. It is entirely possible to insert the appropriate language into law. The first opportunity will be later today when a 520 bill comes up in the House Transportation Committee. The bill removes the restriction on toll revenues only being used for the bridge, and allows their use on 520 on the east side. That bill should maybe be amended to deal with the 18th amendment issue Ben raises.

      6. Ending the HOV lanes at Montlake would not work. Ending them at the bridge deck is the biggest problem there is currently with that corridor. All you’d end up doing is extending the backup out across the lake. Add in the accidents and the inability to reach them and it’s gridlock for everybody.

        The simple solution that costs the least amount of money, improves traffic flow through Montlake (meaning more trips served and faster transit times), decreases travel time both directions (GP and HOV) from I-5 to I-405 and results in the smallest footprint is to make the exits at Montlake HOV/Transit only.

        Point number one: Protect the Arboritum and the Montlake neighborhood. Removal of the ramps through the park is job one. NO buses, NO cars, NO BRIDGE until that is written in stone. Until that happens, NO BRIDGE!

        Point number two: Focus on moving the most people (trips) through the corridor. HOV lanes and transit lanes across the cut without another bridge.

      7. “The simple solution that costs the least amount of money, improves traffic flow through Montlake (meaning more trips served and faster transit times), decreases travel time both directions (GP and HOV) from I-5 to I-405 and results in the smallest footprint is to make the exits at Montlake HOV/Transit only.”

        Now that is a great idea.

        I also agree with your arboretum point. I actually think Lake Washington Boulevard should be vacated, torn up and returned to its natural state within the arboretum, perhaps with a bit of the ROW converted to a bike / walking path.

      8. Good luck with that. This would overwhelm I-5 especially between SR-520 and NE50th, and would kill the surface streets between the UW and I-5. I agree you need to start to cut away at vehicle trips but I don’t see how this is workable.

      9. I think it’s very workable if they moved the focus of the 520 corridor work from Montlake to it’s terminus. Instead of dumping cars onto I-5 for the insanely short shuffle to Mercer and 45th. Provide an alternate connection to downtown. Imagine how stupid it would be if you had to exit I-90 and get off at say James to get to SODO or the ferries. Same thing with the U District. Some of that is in the planning but a lot more emphasis I think needs to be done on how the connection to the express lanes are used. Perhaps there’s a way to maintain the reversible “feature” of the express lanes and still have a 24/7 northbound route from 520 to 45th/50th? And, the express lanes need to switch to HOV 3+ and adopt the open to GP traffic off peak. I was originally opposed to the opening of the HOV lanes off peak but when you think about it it makes a ton of sense because lowers peak demand by shifting single occupancy vehicles to off peak.

  4. 2 great points Ben. I especially like the first point and the general idea that cars benefit from people riding the bus, and that some compensation from car drivers is more than reasonable.
    One issue I have with your opening paragraph is the assumption that WSDOT will be willing to raise the HOV requirement. WSDOT policy has set the HOV operations standard at 45 MPH, but I have yet to see them take action to maintain this speed. Think 405 SB during PM peak through Bellevue. Given that 405 is not the same level of transit corridor as SR 520, but I am just hesitant to assume WSDOT will be willing to convert a HOV lane into a nearly de-facto transit lane if that is what it takes to maintain operations at 45 MPH.

      1. Actually there were plans to switch to 2+ when the lanes are moved from the right lane to the left lane. WSDOT claims that the 3+ restriction west of I-405 is for “safety reasons” because the lane was not built to handle the higher flows of traffic.

      2. I have seen zero evidence of those plans, and have specifically checked on the lanes remaining 3+ with WSDOT.

      3. the three plus lane is only westbound and ends at Evergreen Point. WSDOT argues it would be unsafe at two-plus with the on ramp traffic merging through it.

        there is precedent for the Legislature to change three plus to two plus. that was led by then Senator Gary Nelson, R-21, later on the Snohomish County Council and now retired.

    1. The main reason WSDOT is looking at HOT lanes is to address this issue. I have been in meetings where this is the only topic. It is a concern but 3+ isn’t appealing because it will have too few of users. That is why WSDOT wants them to be 3+ but toll those that are not 3+. This manages demand so that transit has higher reliability but also makes sure that they lanes are fully used to their capacity.

      1. I wasn’t necessarily concerned with what the restrictions to the HOV lanes are, but that the HOV restrictions are adjusted to ensure operating speeds in that lane average above 45 MPH. Is WSDOT going to say no tolled vehicles or raise the tolls high enough to ensure transit ins’t bogged down in the HOV lane? I find it hard to believe WSDOT is going to walk away from some of that toll money (and the capitol investment for equipment) even if it means transit vehicles are slowed by tolled vehicle traffic.

    2. WSDOT policy has set the HOV operations standard at 45 MPH, but I have yet to see them take action to maintain this speed. Think 405 SB during PM peak through Bellevue.

      Rodger that! It’s usually faster in the non-HOV lanes through there. The other oxymoron are the traffic reports that you have to listen to to find out on any given day if the mainline or the “Express” Lanes on I-5 will save you time.

  5. I honestly think that tolls + new HOV lanes will dramatically improve the traffic flow across 520 alone. I’m just not sure what will happen when the HOV lanes will be converted to rail and will ST have to pay for the new HOV lanes that the rail replaced?

  6. The 520 folks are fighting about more than just those issues, Ben… BUT I agree with your points here.

    Who cares if it’s transit-only right now? Write the language so that it can be adjusted later, both to accomodate eventual rail as well as to maintain good traffic flow. HOV doesn’t have to equal HOV 2+ (and it’s a shame they want to reduce part of 520 to HOV 2+ instead of raise the whole length to 3+). As the lanes fill up, we can adjust until we hit the numbers to justify building rail. We should be so lucky to have this problem on the new bridge!

    Yay Flyer stop!

    1. Who’s this “they” who you claim want to go to 2+? I’ve heard otherwise every time I’ve asked, even earlier today.

      1. I appreciate Ben’s points from a technical vantage point, but politically, this is trench warfare with the road lobby. Under the leadership of Judy Clibborn and Mary Margaret Haugen, HOV lanes on I-405 are being turned into toll/playboy lanes.

        Even in Seattle, the Magnolia Community Club is trying to get the transit/bike/off-peak-parking lanes on 15th Ave NW reverted to HOV lanes. There is no serious talk of removing the parked vehicles from these lanes before BRT is installed.

        And check out the stories on how the state has been reneging on pieces of ESSB 6099.


        What some portray as a consensus-seeking process has really been a turf-squatting process, and most of the squatting has been done by car advocates.

        If we don’t get the lanes declare transit now, then the car advocates will say later that if we want one we have to add it on the outside, and not take away “their” HOV lane. Haven’t we learned anything from all the disingenous posturing by certain elected officials over the I-90 transit lanes?

        If we don’t get the lanes declared transit-only now, and funded as such, the state is going to charge ST for those lanes later.

  7. Even if you forget about all the other problems with A+ (paving over the arboretum, bad for bikes and pedestrians, dumping tons of cars into Montlake, etc.) I think your attitude is very short sighted. If we get what you are saying is acceptable (HOV, no flyer stops and some money for buses) then I fear that we will be stuck in ten years with no flyer stops, the money gone and having to fight to get rid of cars so that we can put in rail.

    1. My whole point is to make sure that the money *isn’t* gone. We need a permanent revenue source for transit funding across 520 if they’re going to take the flyer stop.

      1. Unless all funding for transit across 520 is dedicated, there will be a lot of people trying to get their hands on the piece that is discretionary.

      2. I kind of feel like we’re doing this:

        Me: We need to focus on getting transit funding.
        You: If we only get it for a while, it’ll go away!
        Me: Yes, that’s why we need to focus on it.
        You: But other people want it too!

        I understand this is a fight. That’s why I posted about it!

      3. You are stressing that we need to make it constitutionally possible to take that lane for transit without paying off WSDOT. I agree. But I fear that even if that is constitutionally possible it might not be politically possible. Unless the law reads that you, Ben Schiendelman, get to decide when to make it transit only then it will be a huge fight to do so. It is easier and better to take it now. Then we can spend our energy fighting other battles in the future.

      1. The current plan has a 300 foot wide ribbon of pavement at the west edge of the Arboretum (shoreline near MOHAI.) This is the equivalent of 25 lanes wide. A portion of this is obviously unavoidable if there is a highway here, but still, the amount of pavement here is breathtaking.

        Plans K, L and M are no longer being pursued. Long story there, but that’s the bottom line.

      2. Just to emphasize, it’s a problem beyond the west edge too: the width of the freeway through Foster Island (i.e. on top of the main Arboretum walking trail) is double the present width. It’s also 25 ft high (I’m not sure their reference point, but the current surface is perhaps 7 ft above ground level). It’s nice they get rid of the ramps, but it seems to me a slap in the face since WSDOT predicts the same volume of traffic on Lake Washington Boulevard.

        I didn’t start paying attention until a few years ago, but it’s pretty amazing that all the bickering so far has led to a few desolate lids which look like expanded shoulder landscaping. What has Seattle won? Taking the 8-lane option off the table?

  8. Good points, Ben. In general I agree with them – however I would prefer to have BRT from day 1. Can we use gas tax funds for BRT? What about tolls? I’m guessing “no” on the gas taxes; but on the off chance that we can, I really do think BRT should be pushed for right away.

    1. Well, what do you mean by BRT? The 545 is essentially that now, and all of the designs for the new bridge provide it right of way. What specific features are you looking for?

      1. Yes, that’s exactly what I mean – a dedicated right of way for buses across 520. I think as long as the HOV lanes can act as BRT corridors (maybe bus only during peak times?) then people can zip across to the East/West side quickly using public transit.

      2. Even just HOV 3+ doesn’t congest when it’s in the center lane. For now that’s enough, and that’s what’s in the plan.

  9. Thank you Ben for making a reasoned argument. Nice to see some sanity for a change instead of the crap that’s been posted on the P-I sound offs.

    Nearly all of us who post on this blog are light rail advocates. It’s been well discussed here what the challenges are to light rail on the 520 corridor. Converting the center transit or HOV lanes later to light rail are difficult because of the location of the University Link Station near Husky Stadium.

    I’d like to see light rail on 520 built on the north side of the bridge where it can veer off and stop at said station.

    1. Ah ha! Exactly. That’s why I’m not worried about the center lanes, and am worried about the pontoons. Trying to put rail in the middle makes no sense, it would be astronomically expensive to make connections.

      1. Wow, that is a good point! WSDOT should make sure the bridge is engineered from the get-go handle LR on the north side of the bridge.

  10. I don’t understand why one would put a light rail line on SR 520. Why are we driven to put rail wherever there’s a freeway? Think about the corridor between the UW and Redmond. How many places are there along that line where a pedestrian wants to go to or be? There are a lot of carpet stores and strip malls, but really not many other places to walk around. Light rail needs to focus on stringing up as many pedestrian nodes as possible, not going where the cars are.

    On the Seattle side, where would the line go next? It could cut across the south end of Wallingford, I suppose, but again misses most of the population centers (except for Fremont, (which I *hope* would be served on the Mayor’s northwest Seattle LRT line from downtown.)

    Especially if transit would need to pay for the transit share of a bridge due to 18th amendment issues, why not consider alternative routes? How about a rail/ped/bike crossing from Sand Point to Juanita, for example? On the westside this line would offer connections and superior service to a route roughly in the 45th St. corridor, with stops at Magnuson Park, Children’s Hospital, University Village, Brooklyn Stations (admittedly an expensive tunnel segment), and across Wallingford to Ballard. Sand Point to Juanita is the shortest crossing of Lake Washington, and a bridge there could provide a tremendous pedestrian and bicycle amenity as well (how about a fishing pier? Midlake observation deck)? On the eastside it could serve Kirkland, South Kirkland, share a tunnel through Bellevue, and then continue to Factoria, Eastgate and Issaquah – all of them places where pedestrians go.

    Again, you’d string together real pedestrian places, create a bike/ped amenity across the lake. There would be somewhere to go on each side of the lake, but more important, this line would make the difference between having independent light rail lines on each side of the lake, versus having a network. Combined with East link, a line like this would allow eastside riders to get from any pedestrian destination on the eastside to any other with one transfer. Compare that to a single line that only serves Bellevue and Overlake. The same is true on the westside – this line would be a critical crosstown component of a network that would otherwise require rail passengers to head downtown to connect to rail lines serving other corridors (thinking ahead to the Mayor’s desired network).

    We’re spending too much time designing rail to serve auto commutes in auto corridors, and too little time thinking about the networks we need to get between pedestrian centers in a less auto-reliant future. We could do a lot better than to recreate the freeway map with our rail system. (And putting rails in the pavement for show? Have we learned nothing? Argh!)

    1. Oops – I forgot to start by saying “right on” to the original post (except for the part about eventually having rail across 520).

    2. Great comments, Rob. Indeed some people do have a tendency to want to site transit station next to highways because it looks like a place a lot of people want to go, but these tend to be more like places a lot of people want to get through and out of as quickly as possible.

      I and others have occasionally had similar thoughts re: Sand Point – Kirkland crossing. As a route, it has potential, though I suspect it would be a real challenge to find an alignment that is politically viable in Seattle and Kirkland. There was a lot of controversy over soccer fields at Magnuson Park. I also wonder what the premium would be for yet another bridge versus leveraging the one we’re already building. Children’s Hospital and downtown Kirkland are indeed major destinations.

      Upon reflection, I think SR 520 might actually work well as rail route as part of a Ballard-Fremont-Wallingford-U District-South Kirkland-BelRed-Overlake-Redmond line, with trail and future rail connections to the north and south on or near the BNSF ROW.

      I suspect it’s actually doable to get from the Montlake shoreline to UW via a short tunnel bore at acceptable grades for rail (first west, then north under Montlake Blvd. approximately), as long as it doesn’t have to surface at the UW triangle. Once you’re in Montlake, it’s the same solid soil that ST already proposes to bore through.

      SR 520 is being rebuilt anyway, as is the Eastside segment, with everything sized to accommodate light rail in the future. With a very short elevated segment east of Bellevue Way, you could get up to South Kirkland, which could be developed as a TOD. From there it should be cheap and easy to follow the railroad ROW to East Link. Have you seen Bellevue’s plans for the Bel-Red corridor? That area is going to be completely transformed. It’s quite a visionary plan and it would seem a shame for whatever transit runs on SR 520 to bypass it.

      If it’s possible, I think a station near U Village makes a lot of sense as both U Village itself and that area of campus are high density destinations, and U Village keeps growing, and this is where most NE Seattle bus routes funnel in. From there you could bore west into the hillside just south of the soon-to-be-replaced 45th St. viaduct, provide a station just north of the Brooklyn station under the sea of parking there, another near Wallingford Center on 45th (transfer to 44 and 16), another near the Fremont Troll (transfer to Aurora RapidRide and Metro 5) and then on to Ballard from there, somehow.

      Didn’t Sound Transit do some preliminary ridership estimates of a U District to Ballard to downtown line years ago? The number 50,000 sticks in my mind, but it was years ago. It wouldn’t be cheap, but at least the segment from Montlake east looks straightforward as there’s no tunneling and most would be at grade on new or existing ROW.

      1. And all that said, costs and impacts aside, a transit + bicycle bridge from Sand Point to Juanita would be great!

        We could start to approximate this on the cheap with a ferry from 65th St. to downtown Kirkland and some kind of transit running up Sand Point Way to get out there. It is really not that far — it’s like crossing Elliott Bay in the Water Taxi. I once kayaked across to the Kirkland Marina in 22 minutes.

        Then add the historic mosquito fleet connection from Kirkland to Madison Park and it would make quite the weekend triangle route for bicyclists, tourists, etc.

    3. This is very true of much of the debate over 520 light rail:

      We’re spending too much time designing rail to serve auto commutes in auto corridors, and too little time thinking about the networks we need to get between pedestrian centers in a less auto-reliant future.

      I am a big time rail fan. I want to build as much, as fast, as we can. But I sincerely believe that BRT is a superior solution on 520 now and well into the future. BRT has the ability to better connect with light rail stations and urban centers on both sides. The major employers have large campuses like Microsoft and Nintendo that are efficient to serve with stations. BRT routes can go directly downtown and not overload full trains coming from Northgate and the U-District. Buses already carry 14,500/daily, the same as Link, daily on 520. The state partnership program is adding 15% more service in the corridor beginning soon. More robust BRT improvements could improve ridership even more in a cost effective way.

      1. Agreed. BRT, while usually inferior to light rail, is the better choice for this corridor.

        We will still want to build light rail from Ballard to UW, but we should keep it farther north near 45th St to connect with the Brooklyn Station in the U-district rather than Husky Stadium, then continue west along 45th (likely underground) to a stop at U-village, then end at Children’s or continue up to Magnison Park for the final stop.

        U-district northwest is where all the density, pedestrian oriented retail and TOD potential lies, and the potency of that TOD node will be greatly enhanced if new residents can access points to the east and west as well as north and south. U-village, like Northgate, could be radically transformed into TOD as well, without any nimbies to balk because no one lives in U-village.

        Have two main BRT lines across 520, one flows through to I-5 and downtown Seattle, the other exits and heads north at Montlake (via a transit only exit a la bernie’s post above) with stations directly above the Huskey Stadium light rail for North/south transfers, then continue up 25th to U-village for east-west light rail transfers (and retail shopping / TOD), and then keep going north up to Lake City.

        Don’t really know what to do with the two lines on the Eastside, as I never go over there, but I’m sure they could meet up with East Link at some point and/or serve Kirkland.

      2. I think tunneling parallel to 45th, going elevated near U Village, and then dropping to at-grade (Rainier Valley style) on Sand Point for another stop at Children’s would be a good plan. But I’d probably end it there – the NIMBYs who don’t want Children’s to be able to expand would likely preclude extending it further.

    4. The advantage of the Evergreen Bridge is that it’s already there. I expect there would be a lot of opposition to adding another bridge unless it’s next to an existing one. More bridges would give the impression of paving over the lake, which would detract from the “natural” look that was the reason people bought their waterfront property in the first place.

    1. We would, if we weren’t having this huge battle over the footprint of the bridge.

      There are two endpoints here. UW is a natural endpoint, and that’s where we’re putting in HOV ramps. As there isn’t really anything at 520, the flyer stop isn’t necessary at all if we can implement service to replace it – we’ve needed a better connection there for a long time anyway.

  11. I got to wondering about buses and rail sharing a lane. Independent of whether that makes sense in any particular place, or how we’d pay for it, etc., is it even possible?

    We know this happens now in the DSTT, at low speeds, with signaling systems that prevent them from getting too close. Are there other examples of joint use of a lane for bus and rail? The answer turns out to be yes.

    Portland is building a beautiful new bridge exclusively for use by transit, pedestrians and bicycles.

    An example already built is found in Pittsburgh. The Mt. Washington Transit Tunnel – an old tunnel converted to shared light rail and bus use in Pittsburgh in 1973, is used by light rail and buses. The tunnel includes a 6% grade with no shoulders.

    So it is apparently quite possible. I am trying to find some info about the speed limits on these corridors.

    1. That seems like a small technical issue buried in a bad decision. There is no plan for light rail over 520.

Comments are closed.