520 construction timeline
Rest of the West project scope and timeline

About a year from now, transit riders and carpoolers traveling between Seattle and the Eastside will notice a big improvement: for the first time in history, State Route 520’s HOV lanes will extend all the way from Bellevue to Montlake.  If your bus or carpool happens to traverse this segment of road, you’ll have a speedier, more reliable commute. It will be glorious.

Unfortunately, about a year later, it will disappear again, and the HOV lanes will be back to where they are today, ending part way across the lake.

Chalk it up to a matter of timing and funding.

The 520 bridge project was designed to be completed in phases, since WSDOT wasn’t sure if or when the legislature would kick in the necessary funds.  And so, in mid-2017, the West Approach Bridge North (WABN) project will complete, and Westbound traffic will be diverted to the new bridge while the old approach bridge is re-striped for Eastbound traffic.  Each approach bridge will carry two general purpose (GP) lanes and one high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane.

If more funds hadn’t materialized, the project would be wrapping up at that point. But the legislature ponied up, and the $1.6B “Rest of the West,” which replaces the old approach bridge as well as the rest of the connection  to I-5, including lids at Montlake and Roanoke, will begin construction in 2018.  At that time, the old approach bridge will be demolished, and traffic will be diverted onto the WABN in both directions.  The WABN will be re-striped to carry two GPs in each direction, thereby ending HOV access all the way to Montlake.   That will be the situation for about five years until the Montlake lid and surrounding elements are built.

Curious, I asked WSDOT if they had studied the idea of keeping HOV access all the way to Montlake.  Larry Kyle, lead engineer for the project, explained that the northern approach bridge is a bit wider than its southern complement but still too narrow for more than 4 lanes.  According to WSDOT’s models, traffic delays would be too severe in the Westbound direction if there were only a single GP lane. Bicyclists, fortunately, will have access to the full length of the bridge during virtually the entire construction period.

One other interesting tidbit: some folks were dismayed to learn that the 2nd bascule bridge at Montlake was slated for the very end of the project.  Kyle told me that the phasing was based on funds from the legislature, not engineering.  Therefore, if the city or another entity were interested in advancing the funds for the second bridge sooner, it could possibly be moved up by a few years.

40 Replies to “520 HOV Lanes Will Soon Get Better…For a While”

  1. We have a rough few years coming up The buses get kicked out of the tunnel before we get another Link extension. I-90 buses are slowed down considerably — https://seattletransitblog.wpcomstaging.com/2016/02/13/coming-in-2018-major-changes-to-i-90-buses/. Now we lose speed (and consistency) on 520. The changes seem especially harsh for those going across Lake Washington.

    Everything will be much better a few years from now, assuming they fix the connection from 520 to Husky Stadium. Do that and you will have really fast bus service along 520 to Link, along with light rail to Bellevue. Meanwhile, you will have bi-directional car pool lanes along I-90. I doubt there will be a bus running there once East Link is built, but this would be good for folks who carpool.

  2. Frank, do we have any idea how much money the Legislature’s handling of our whole State is costing us? Because I’m reading here that a major artery is going to be running at the speed of an alley for most of my remaining life.

    We’d best get EastLink into the the best condition of any transit corridor in the nation- while we seriously investigate turning SR 520 into the world’s longest floating park, with paths and bike trails for transit. Which could be highest possible throughput.

    And go in with Kitsap on its coming order of fast passenger ferry boats. Not in the slightest kidding. After wasting years of travel time getting past Tacoma on wheels, my share of taxes to give Eastsiders every parking space they want along every express bus line will save me enough to retire to the Eurozone.

    And help rebuild its economy.

    I doubt I’m alone in thinking that our country’s whole political system at all levels is in worse shape than our State’s highways. For which our national survival demands a remedy. For which I’m resigned to spending all my own remaining days.

    So starting small, like with SR 520…what’s next political move?

    Mark Dublin

    1. “Because I’m reading here that a major artery is going to be running at the speed of an alley for most of my remaining life.”

      Well, yes, that’s the plan – it’s called “Vision Zero”.

      1. I don’t think that’s applicable to 520, given the cycle/pedestrian path is separated from the roadway by a concrete barrier…

      2. No, I was just taking advantage of the opportunity to be snarky about road diets and reduced speed limits.

  3. I can’t tell from the map, but Is there going to be a staircase from Foster Island to the 520 bike path? That would open up some additional options for runners/walkers who want to use the 520 bridge path while avoiding the mess that the Montlake Lid is about to become.

    1. I’m pretty sure the answer is “no”. The path on Foster Island will go over the freeway, with no way to get down to it.

      1. Sure it’s over and not under the freeway? It’s always gone under the old bridge, and all those paths are often muddy, sometimes flooded — it’s hard to imagine all the expense of a bridge high enough to get over the freeway for such paths. And equally hard to imagine all that expense without connecting it directly to the bridge path.

      2. The Foster Island path will go under, near the island’s west edge (basically where it is now) – only now it’s under 6/7 lanes instead of 4. Yay! At least the structure will be higher there….

  4. Actually, the premise of buses being able to use the HOV lane all the way to Montlake is not quite true. At some point, the buses will have to move over to the right, for access to either the Montlake exit ramp or Montlake freeway station. Still, probably an improvement, though.

    The big elephant in the room, of course, is when the Montlake Freeway Station closes, and what happens to the bus routes at that point. From the graphic, it sounds like the freeway station will close sometime in 2018, but the Montlake lid won’t be open until years after that. Fortunately, with the 520 bike trail open, whatever Metro decides to do with the buses, there will at least be a bypass option that doesn’t involve sitting in traffic and paying bridge tolls every single day.

    1. The key will be how this is built in the long term. What is essential is a bus only ramp which connects to the hov lane. It would be crazy to have the bus go in the hov lane and then have to work its way over to the exit to serve the UW (and Link).

      1. The final configuration will have center HOV ramps that continue through a stop on the Montlake lid and turn onto Montlake to the north. Unfortunately they’re designed specifically for Eastside UW travel and don’t provide access to or from 520 west of Montlake.

      2. Yes, the Montlake lid will include HOV Direct access ramps so buses don’t have to leave the center HOV lane, and it will include bus stops on the lid. I think once the buses turn onto Montlake they will be in mixed traffic, but simply bypassing the queing GP traffic on exit/on ramps will be huge. Also, direct access ramps are only east of the lid – no direct access ramps for buses coming from I5, so not sure how the service pattern will be for eastside to downtown buses.
        A good diagram here:
        Or go directly to the WSDOT project page, the open house boards at this link are very detailed:

      3. Here’s a good summary, from pg. 57 of the West Side Final Conecpt Design report from SDOT & WSDOT:

        Future transit operations on the Montlake lid
        The Montlake Freeway Transit Station has been relocated to the top of the new Montlake lid. This will change future transit operations in the following ways:
        ● Downtown Seattle to Eastside: During peak hours, buses will not stop at the Montlake lid, providing more direct service. During off-peak hours, transit agencies could operate buses on top of the Montlake lid, providing service similar to today.
        ● Capitol Hill to the Eastside: Riders will have a short walk from a new local bus stop to regional bus stops on the Montlake lid at all hours.
        ● Capitol Hill to downtown Seattle: Riders can ride Link light rail or local buses.

      4. Looking at the designs there’s nothing preventing busses from stopping on the lid and then continuing to SR 520 West. True, it adds 2 new traffic lights I think compared to today, but it actually is a relatively direct routing and will likely be more pleasant than the existing freeway stops.

      5. @AJ — Excellent, that is good news. I thought that was the case, but I know a lot of the design is in flux (but that part seems like it is locked in). I agree that the key. That will make it much faster to get to Husky Stadium. So fast that I don’t think there is much point in having those buses go directly downtown. Maybe to Capitol Hill (as suggested) or South Lake Union, but in both cases you would want to serve the lid to provide connections.

  5. There’s also some egregious service holes in the SR-520 corridor in the evenings. For example, on Saturday night, the 255, 271, and 545 all drop to hourly as early as 8 PM. While numerous service hours have been added to the SR-520 corridor in the past 10 years, nearly all of the additions have been rush hour service, while weekend service has barely budged from what it was in the early 2000’s.

    1. Rush hour service nearly pays for itself, or at least captures a significantly larger share of operating cost from the farebox. Talk to your neighbors who voted down County Prop 1 if you want more off-peak (read “nosebleed expensive”) service.

    2. @asdf2 All the more reason to truncate at the UW. Use the service hour savings to provide that kind of service. Besides, the buses will be kicked out of the tunnel, removing one of the big benefits of current bus service.

      1. I recently switched jobs, and now commute to Kirkland on the 255/540 instead of Redmond on the 541/542/545. Overall, the change seems to be a net positive, not getting stuck in traffic along 520 east of 405, anymore. (It also turns out that the twists and turns for the 255 to get in and out of South Kirkland P&R is much less time-consuming than the twists and turns for the 545 to get in and out of OTC). However, if Montlake Freeway Station closes without new trips being added to the 540, it would be concerning. As it is, the last 540 trip leaves home at 9 AM and work at 5:40 PM, and I often leave later than this.

      2. And, yes, the service restructure proposed in alternative 1 a year ago, where the 255 would be truncated at the UW Station, outside of peak-hour-peak-direction, in exchange for better service frequency and reliability, would be a significant plus. I absolutely hope it ultimately happens, even if the closure of Montlake Freeway Station and the removal of buses from the downtown transit tunnel end up being the forcing functions to push it through.

      3. I personally would truncate all day long. The 71/72/73 no longer goes downtown, and I think you can make a much stronger argument that they should — at least during rush hour in peak direction. That is when those buses were fantastic. They would pick up people in the U-District (and places north) and quickly whisk them downtown, right into the tunnel. But they eliminated that service, and simply boosted it elsewhere. I’m sure a lot of people came out behind, but I think overall it has worked out OK.

        In the case of 520 buses, once they kick them out of the tunnel, I see less value. You still have that section of I-5. It isn’t clear to me whether the new 520 will connect to the HOV express lanes, or the regular lanes. Either way the bus tunnel is gone, which means that a bus will slog its way downtown. An express will likely get to its first stop quicker, but not one farther south. In other words, an express would be faster in the middle of the day, but likely not during rush hour. The service savings would be substantial, and put into other express runs. For example the 252/257 have very limited service — nothing in the evening heading towards downtown. Extra service there might save more people more time than the express does.

  6. The problem with the Montlake crossing isn’t the buscule bridge, the problem is that the bridge dumps all its traffic into a cluster f*** of signals and intersections.

    I.e, it’s not bridge capacity that is the issue, it is intersection capacity. Replace the roads and intersections encircling the UW parking garage with a European style signalized roundabout and the need for a second bridge goes away. It would be a lot simpler with fewer lights and light cycles, and traffic heading from 520 to U.Village/S.Point wouldn’t have to stop at all.

    It’s not that hard — there is a whole continent and the nation of Great Britain that is just full of examples that work really, really well. SDOT needs to think out of the tired old American box. They need to go copy what works.

    1. But that still wouldn’t solve the biggest problem, which is getting from Husky stadium to 520. Traffic backs up during rush hour (morning and evening) all the way to the bridge. Adding hov lanes would help (and pretty much solve the north bound problem) but traffic headed to the freeway would still be stuck on the bridge. If the buses could use the parking lot and exit close to the bridge though, it might not be that bad.

      1. A more rational interchange for the Montlake triangle based on a proven European design would help traffic in all directions.

        And at least theoretically the redesign of the 520/Montlake BLVD interchange should improve traffic flow at that spot too.

      2. @Mike — Yeah, that is basically what I meant. In other words, 520 traffic backs up so much that it pushes everything all the way back to U. Village. This is why buses avoid that street (that direction). So from a transit perspective, it really doesn’t matter how bad it gets to the north of Husky Stadium. The big issue is getting from Husky Stadium to 520 during rush hour. An extra HOV lane right after the bridge should help things. That would then leave only the distance between the exit from the parking lot south of the station to the other side of the bridge. Some of that already has a skip ahead section, so really the only problem is the bridge itself and what lies to the south. Which means that if they add the HOV lane to the south, then you’ve minimized the problem (anything else would require a new bridge).

        Northbound the only issue is traffic that backs up because of the bridge opening. The HOV ramp should help immensely. You’ll still have to wait for the bridge to open, but once it does, you will have essentially skipped to the front of the line.

        A more rational interchange for the Montlake triangle based on a proven European design would help traffic in all directions.

        Again, that isn’t the issue. It wouldn’t help 520 traffic which is the cause of southbound congestion, nor would it eliminate the bridge openings, which is the cause of northbound congestion.

        traffic heading from 520 to U.Village/S.Point wouldn’t have to stop at all.

        Except, of course, for pedestrians. Since the station is on one side, and the hospital is on the other, there are a lot of pedestrians.

        Besides, that isn’t the issue. Traffic does not back up onto 520 from the triangle. It backs up from 520 to the triangle (and beyond, as Mike said). Even if they built a roundabout (as they have many times in this state) it wouldn’t change the fact that southbound there are four lanes of traffic squeezing into two lanes of traffic over the Montlake Bridge which doesn’t move quickly during rush hour because 520 is congested. Northbound is less of an issue, but you still have four lanes of traffic — two from Montlake, two from Pacific — squeezing into two northbound lanes of Montlake Boulevard. You can favor one group over the other (e. g. let northbound folks on Montlake Boulevard have the right of way as you suggest) but that won’t change the fundamental dynamic (or come close to solving the biggest problem).

      3. The suburbs have gotten into roundabouts. There’s one at Evergreen Point, one in Covington, and one in Federal Way. They just haven’t caught on in Seattle, maybe because the streets are narrower and the street grid more densde, which musty make them harder to install and probably less nocessary. (And those little traffic circles are not the same thing; they’re too small and residential to have much of a simultaneous merge effect. They essentially function like speed bumps. And planters.)

        I’d say the problem with Montlake Boulevard and 45th is the huge number of cars going to the freeway. Everyone goes there because it’s supposedly fastest. And from northeast Seattle there’s no other way to get ti the Eastside or Capitol Hill or the Central District.

      4. “the street grid more densde, which musty make them harder to install and probably less nocessary”

        OMG, it looks like the Chaucer. “Shall we go upon yon traunsitt lynne?”

      5. There’s a fair number of roundabout around Olympia and Lacy too. I think my least favorite is the one at 4th Ave and Olympic Street / Olympic Avenue.

      6. Roundabouts do require more space, which is why you’ll never see them in an urban, downtown grid, and in most of Seattle’s residential neighborhoods the lots are small & the grid is dense, so again they don’t make as much sense.

        I absolutely love roundabouts, but they generally only work in suburban grids. Montlake would not be a good use of a roundabout.

      7. @Mike — Your last comment cracked me up. I’ll try and remember that (Chaucer and text go together).

        @AJ — I think a roundabout could work in Seattle — in a handful of places — but they do require more space. One of the possibilities is 50th and Stone Way. This is a five way intersection (Green Lake Way being the other street). There are several lanes at the intersection, but oddly enough, only one lane going each direction. Thus it is a very big, broad area, with 15 lanes which could all be replaced by a single lane roundabout. Whether it would actually move vehicles through any faster or not is hard to say. I would guess so — a five lane intersection is terrible for traffic lights — but sometimes things don’t work as you might expect. I remember the Dravus intersection when they finally added a traffic light. People assumed that traffic would flow better, but it actually worked better when they had four way stops (so they went back to that during times of heavy congestion).

        Anyway, a simple one lane roundabout wouldn’t work for that area — traffic would definitely get worse. I imagine that isn’t exactly what Lazarus has in mind, but I see no design that would improve things substantially. It is simply a convergence zone that prevents the free flow of traffic.

      8. @RossB – for sure. 50th & Stone is an interesting stop, b/c 5-way stops can be great as roundabouts b/c you aren’t waiting through the long light cycle that occurs when you have that extra 5th road. Also helps with traffic is predominately coming from one direction (in this case, to/from 99). Roundabout bog down when you have high volume coming from perpendicular directions; in that case lights may work better.

        Holman – 105th – Greenwood might be a similar example of a 5 way stop.

        Which Dravus intersection?

    2. Signalized roundabouts are the worst of both worlds. At that point you are well past the point where a roundabout makes any sense.

      1. Right – signalized roundabout isn’t a roundabout, it’s a traffic circle. It makes sense if there is something in the middle of the traffic circle (like a plaza, building, or monument), but otherwise is pretty limited.

  7. If both bridges are going to be lamed for years at the same time, what if the buses don’t get kicked out of the Tunnel until either LINK is up and running on I-90? Any chance we can use the lanes where the tracks will go, at least during rush hour?

    Because from what I’m seeing, for the entire length of Lake Washington, travel itself is going to be pinched off between the two most critical parts of our region. Usually haven’t got much sympathy for subarea demands.

    But wouldn’t mind seeing some stubborn East Side resentment be brought to bear against a Downtown-Seattle-Only convention center enlargement doing real lasting damage to cross-lake travel.

    Building construction can be phased different ways- meaning leaving at least a north-end driveway to the tube, losing Convention Place but serving Westlake Station. Can see real operations problem if LINK service gets irreparably impaired.

    Won’t say my usual about maximizing DSTT joint ops. Repetition gets old, even when it’s right. But am I wrong that we’re looking at a years-long emergency for transportation itself? Bad enough to finally use a Meme on civilans: a bus could be the only way to get a hundred fifty pm-rush motorists across the lake in time for breakfast.


  8. As we add another five years to the 520 fiasco, I would like to know how many state employees and how many contractor employees will have spent their entire careers working on 520 between I-5 and I-405. Having worked on the Jumbo MKii ferries for WSF and other shipbuilding projects, I am continuously amazed at how long it takes to complete a land based project or any size, government or private.

  9. Stephen, to me it’s equally disheartening both to live with projects that can’t even look finished in the length of a professional career, and knowing that with a transportation project, the results will be out of date long before completion.

    Compared to the projects in your own trade, what would you say is the main difference that makes land-based projects take so long, and what we the voters can tell our reps to do about it?

    Mark Dublin

  10. In the math they use to justify these massive projects, they usually put some money value to time saved with the new project. They don’t usually include the time people lose due to the hindrance of construction. I don’t really understand why they are closing the I-90 express lanes and doing construction now, instead of focusing efforts on the East side until the last minute. It’s really going to take 6 years to run the tracks along an already grade-separated, paved right of way?

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