The third study area staff presented at this month’s Sound Transit Executive Commitee meeting was Kirkland to Issaquah, to go along with Ballard to UW and from UW across 520. As with the 520 options, these plans commit to save costs by using existing right-of-way regardless of its proximity to ridership generators. Assuming some sort of subarea equity continues into ST3, the East King subarea is likely to have enough revenue to do better than what these options suggest.
The two light rail options both travel down from Totem Lake to Downtown Bellevue via the Eastside Rail Corridor, link with East Link at Hospital Station, and run along I-90 from roughly Eastgate to Issaquah. The difference is between downtown Bellevue and Eastgate. Option C1 (9-11,000 riders, $2.0-2.7 billion, 23-28 minutes) uses a mixture of elevated and at-grade track via Richards Rd, while Option C3 (9-11,000 riders, $1.9-2.6 billion, 22-27 minutes) uses I-405 instead of Richards Rd. The concepts have no difference in notional station placement, so C3 would appear to have the nominal advantage.
The bus options, by comparison, aren’t so bad. The exception to that is A2a, which runs in “managed lanes” on the two freeways. At less than $700m, it would attract only 6-7,000 riders. Though fastest of the buses at 23-28 minutes, reliability depends on WSDOT maintaining speeds of 45 mph in the lanes, which they haven’t done in the past.
The other three options only differ from light rail (and each other) in the section between Downtown Bellevue and Eastgate, and the degree to which they get priority. Option C2 (7-8,000 riders, $1.2-1.6 billion, 23-28 minutes) is the bus version of C1 (Richards Rd.), with some exclusive busway there. Option B1, intriguingly, moves East-West through downtown Bellevue, and restores service on Bellevue Way that will disappear with the 550. B1 is further subdivided into an option with exclusive busway there (9-11,000 riders, $700m-$1 billion, 28-34 minutes) and one without (6-8,000 riders, $500-700m, 26-32 minutes).
Both bus and rail extensions to Issaquah Highlands add about 2,000 riders, and about $35m and $500m, respectively.
By not imagining significant deviations from readily available right of way, the set of East King conceptual studies kneecaps potential ridership. A big Sound Transit 3 package is going to need a big, quality-of-life improving transit investment on the Eastside, and East King produces enough revenue to afford one. I’m not sure that buses running in freeways and isolated corridors, or light rail that provides barely any advantage over it, fits the bill.
The one place in East King that the study envisioned taking lots of right-of-way in the center of a city was in Renton, and the results were encouraging for a suburban ring line. As tempting as the Eastside Rail Corridor is, it cannot be the entire answer. Intercity segments on the ERC and I-90 must pair with grade-separated diversions into Downtown Kirkland, Bellevue College, Bellevue’s ambitious plans for Eastgate, and the like. Although access to Bellevue via Hospital Station would be adequate, an approach from the West to catch more of downtown Bellevue would be ideal.* Kirkland, Eastgate, and (possibly) distant Issaquah deserve to tie in to the rail network with high-quality rail that reaches the actual ridership generators in the area.
* Assuming a more amenable Bellevue City Council in the future.