Among the projects that Sound Transit has suggested for the Eastside are I-405 Bus Rapid Transit and Light Rail between Totem Lake and Issaquah. While light rail is a clear priority, Eastside cities are interested in BRT on the Eastside Rail Corridor (ERC) as an interim solution. So there are several proposals in play that could serve as a high capacity transit (HCT) corridor in Kirkland.
Kirkland is attempting to balance these options. Some form of I-405 BRT is very likely to be included in any ST3 package, but requires an expensive station at NE 85th St to be relevant to Central Kirkland. The City has asked for a NE 85th St station along with a fast, frequent connection to downtown. A fixed guideway connection – aerial tram or people mover – has been suggested, but bus is surely more probable.
Light rail on the ERC gets closer to more Kirkland transit riders, but still has a last-mile problem in downtown Kirkland. BRT on the ERC could resolve the last mile issue with a deviation to downtown and at much lower cost than a rail alignment.
Casual observers surely take for granted that any of these new transit options will be better and faster than today. Surprisingly, this is not the case for many riders to the most popular destinations. For riders to Seattle, neither light rail nor I-405 BRT would even approach the travel time of today’s Metro services. For travel to Bellevue, light rail would be slower than current bus service. I-405 BRT could deliver somewhat improved times for some customers, but would mean longer travel times for others. BRT that follows the Eastside rail corridor would handily beat any of the alternatives for a much larger number of transit users.
In gaming out these scenarios, I developed estimates for riders from two representative locations. The downtown Transit Center is the largest ridership center in Central Kirkland and a focus for policy makers. The Houghton Business Center is an interesting secondary ridership center. That’s the area south of Google, and near to Northwest University. A long-discussed upzone to the retail center is likely next year.
I’ve assumed station placement to match the corridor studies, with the addition of a NE 85th station for I-405 BRT. I’ve also assumed frequent connecting bus service to either station from both downtown and Houghton. All estimates depend on future design decisions, so are somewhat directional. However, the broad conclusions are robust to minor tweaks in assumptions.
For trips to Seattle, both LRT and I-405 BRT are handicapped in two ways. First, there is an added transfer penalty within Kirkland. Neither a rail station on the ERC (assumed per ST corridor studies to be located east of 6th St) or I-405 are walkable for many riders. Second, both rely on a connection to East Link to get to Seattle which is much less direct than crossing SR 520.
Travel Times to Seattle:
|From||I-405 BRT||LRT||Metro 255||BRT on ERC|
Either LRT or I-405 BRT would add about 20 minutes to a Kirkland rider’s trip to Seattle on Metro 255. Rail between Kirkland and Seattle doesn’t work unless it can cross SR 520, which is not under consideration for ST3. For Houghton, it’s worse because we are adding some out of direction travel to the mix. The time penalty could be up to 25 minutes. Even this assumes frequent connecting service between Houghton and the HCT service (particularly for I-405 BRT; LRT is marginally walkable).
Travel Times to Bellevue:
|From||I-405 BRT||LRT||Metro 234||BRT on ERC|
For trips to Bellevue, the challenges for HCT service are about connections. The same transfer penalties persist at the Kirkland end, but are compounded for LRT by a second transfer at Wilburton (Hospital) station to get to downtown Bellevue. LRT travel time to Bellevue is 3-7 minutes slower than Metro. For riders from downtown Kirkland on I-405 BRT, however, the transfer penalty is offset by faster travel on I-405 vs surface streets, yielding a total travel time a few minutes faster than Metro 234/235.
However, Houghton riders are disadvantaged because of their out of direction travel. LRT is significantly slower, and I-405 BRT just about reaches parity with current Metro. With the new inconvenience of an added transfer at the freeway station, this will be perceived as a step backwards.
On the other hand, BRT on the ERC (if it served downtown Kirkland) should meet or beat Metro’s off-peak travel times. At peak, it would be much faster because it would evade congestion on the arterial streets. Particularly to Bellevue, the more direct routing should be better than the current Metro routing at any time, so another 3 minute time saving should be readily achievable.
The use case for I-405 BRT in Kirkland is fairly narrow. Even for downtown, one could do almost as well by straightening out the 234/235 route (hence benefiting all Kirkland riders to Bellevue). A NE 85th St station is pricey (ST estimated $385 million), so it needs to do much more than shave a few minutes off travel times for a subset of the riders on those routes. Current combined weekday ridership on the 234/235 is only 2,700, much of which isn’t in downtown. The 6,400 weekday riders on Metro 255 would be uniformly disadvantaged if they had to switch to either LRT or I-405 BRT.
Kirkland is trying to make the best of the options that the Sound Transit Board put on the table for the Eastside in May. With strong regional support for I-405 BRT, it makes sense for the City to pursue the most favorable design possible. But the City’s advocacy has also recognized the merits of BRT on the corridor as part of an intra-eastside network. For most Kirkland riders, this is the more relevant option.