After about a decade of planning, legislative showdowns, and lawsuits, two-way HOV operations (R8A)* are to begin on Sunday, June 4th. WSDOT expects delays the first Monday, as people learn about the new configuration. A significant opening in its own right, two-way operations are an omen of even greater changes to commutes in the corridor, and to the way that transit advocates think about I-90.

For years, HOVs (and any vehicles from Mercer Island) have used the 2 express lanes in the peak direction between Seattle and Mercer Island. Only east of Mercer Island were there more traditional HOV left-lanes, allowing buses in either direction to bypass some traffic. This works great for the stream of morning express buses into downtown Seattle. But anyone trying to commute out of Seattle by bus or HOV** would spend time mired in general traffic. Worse, in the afternoon westbound there would be a difficult merge into general traffic on Mercer Island.

The reverse-peak commute is indisputably better beginning next week. With peak-direction HOV capacity dropping from two (express) lanes to one, the impact on those commutes depends on how well WSDOT manages demand by adjusting HOV thresholds and introducing tolls. Based on experience on other highways, the long-term prospects are not great.

For transit advocates, however, the long-term prospects are largely irrelevant: at the end of this project, Sound Transit has replaced the capacity it is claiming for light rail tracks, and East Link construction can begin in earnest. Bus traffic between Mercer Island and Seattle will one day be no more than a trickle, and WSDOT’s successes and failures will have little impact on transit commutes in the corridor.***

*The configuration opening on Sunday is named “R8A” for the option that represented it in alternatives analysis. In sufficiently wonky circles, the name stuck for reasons that are not entirely clear. However the blame may lay not a million miles from this website.

** I did this for five years, and fantasized about this day. In a way typical of long-lived transit projects, I have long since moved on from that work site and job.

*** Though if buses terminate on Mercer Island, HOV lane congestion will still matter.

35 Replies to “Two-Way Transit Priority Opening on I-90”

  1. Have we got a map or diagram showing exactly what new lane arrangement will be? Thanks.

    Mark Dublin

  2. This is great news. I am looking forward to it.

    Though if buses terminate on Mercer Island, HOV lane congestion will still matter.

    I find it strange that there is no discussion of this. It is still a few years away, but I would think that Metro and ST would be planning an approach. I suppose the lack of clarity surrounding Mercer Island is a problem, and may be why they are waiting.

    It may also be that they are waiting to see what happens with regards to traffic,. It wouldn’t surprise me if traffic flows fairly well to Mercer Island. Unlike today, folks are not forced out of the HOV lane. Nor will there be many cars coming merging from Mercer Island. Only a handful of Mercer Island HOV cars and buses. It won’t flow as well as 520, but it should still flow fairly well.

    If not, I guess there is always South Bellevue. But in that case they might want to look into making some improvements (maybe bus lanes on Bellevue Way).

    1. Well Mercer Island is fighting buses using their transit center, so perhaps they will be successful in making this irrelevant.

      1. Good God, [ad hom]. I mean, I understand why they want to keep the general purpose ramp on Island Crest Way. If you are used to driving that, you don’t want to give that up.

        But fighting bus service to your island? [ad hom] If Mercer Island became a major transit center for the east side, it is good for business and good for the residents. It is quite plausible to assume that buses from Issaquah will head there every 15 minutes, all day long. This means that all you need to do to get to Issaquah, Eastgate, Factoria (or Bellevue and Seattle) is to get your butt to the station. Instead folks will have a three seat ride to the first set of places. Get to the station, take a train one stop (to South Bellevue) then wait for the other bus. Just idiotic.

        Man, it upsets me that places like Lake City have to beg for a station that isn’t even in their neighborhood (but would give them a much better connection to Link) while Mercer Island resists transit options that would be the envy of much more densely populated areas.

      2. @RossB

        Mercer Island isn’t tiny. How are you supposed to get from whatever random part of Mercer way you are on to the transit center? Bus service within the island is abysmal.

        Obviously I’d prefer if Mercer Island was fighting for better internal bus service, demanding more service from KCM, and introducing levees, but they have never been bus people. If you don’t know how to ride transit, it likely won’t occur that transit could be useful to you personally.

        The point is, if most of the island can’t utilize these transfer busses, how much does the island benefit? They probably think they benefit even less. Once they have no reason to want the busses, they see only the downsides. A real big downside is Busses are big, loud, smelly machines. They don’t want a continuous stream of them near downtown.

        Your contention that it would be good for business is not something I can imagine M.I. being interested in. Is their downtown still under a building moratorium? They like it the way it is.

        I think M.I. is being slightly selfish, but not stupid. But I do agree, the irony of Lake City and M.I. is frustrating.

      3. I know how big Mercer Island is. I’ve been all over it. But you are suggesting that people who live there never leave it.

        >> How are you supposed to get from whatever random part of Mercer way you are on to the transit center?

        Walk, drive, take a bus, or ride a bike. Just like every other transit station.

        >> Bus service within the island is abysmal.

        Right, but if you send more buses to Mercer Island, it will improve. Simply adding Link should improve the service dramatically. You quickly get into a virtuous circle, where better headways lead to more riders. Having a fast and frequent connection to places like Factoria, Eastgate, Sammamish and Issaquah will likely improve things even more. In other words, if you allow buses from off of the island to use the transit center, you will improve the service of buses on the island.

        It is no different for NE 130th. Bus service to the proposed NE 130th station is worse than abysmal. It doesn’t exist! There is not a single bus that serves it. But build a station there, and everything changes.

        That doesn’t mean that everyone walks to the bus stop. Some drive. Instead of walking to catch the (now frequent) 204, you drive to the nearest bus stop. Having the 204 run frequently enough (e. g. every 15 minutes) is way more likely if other buses (from off the island) serve it. It is also possible that the 204 could be combined with a bus to someplace to the east. That could mean a one stop ride (two if you count the pleasant drive to the bus stop) from a house on Mercer Island to a job at Eastgate.

        >> Your contention that it would be good for business is not something I can imagine M.I. being interested in.

        Wow, really? So the Mercer Island Chamber of Commerce just disbanded, for lack of interest. Life is so good if you are a shop keeper that you don’t want any new business. So places like The Islander, which advertises that it is “Located near Seattle & Bellevue on the island!” should skip that sentence and just go with “If you aren’t already on the island, don’t bother coming here. We don’t need your business anyway”. By the way, that place just moved because of the construction that apparently isn’t happening. Construction very close to the station that will be built.

        Call me crazy, but I have a feeling that many of the shops in the area would actually like more business. I count dozens of places within walking distance of the new station that would like additional business that could come from being a major transit hub. Not to mention the significant number of residents that live (or will soon live) in apartments nearby.

        Is Mercer Island being selfish or stupid? Hmmm, the two go together more often than not. It reminds me of the fable about the goose that laid the golden egg. Selfish or stupid? I say both.

      4. The concern on MI is access to express lanes, which means it is for people commuting into Seattle. If you are trying to get into Seattle, taking Link will be better than driving for the vast majority of destinations during rush hour. So yes, MI should be investing in better ways to get people to and from the transit center within the Island, and not fretting about getting cars on & off the Island.

        And “buses are loud and dirty” is not longer a valid argument – all-electric buses are now a real thing in actual Metro operations.

      5. @AJ — But they really are two different issues. At least that is my understanding. The ramps and the express lanes have nothing to do with how many buses use the transit center.

        As I said, I can understand why folks on Mercer Island are fighting for the ramp. Not only do they lose their access to the express lanes, but they have to use a completely different ramp. Link will be popular, but for a lot of people, they will continue to drive. For example, let’s say you are a doctor at the V. A.. From your house on the island you can take a bus, then a train, then transfer to a different train (heading back towards where you came from) then take another bus and walk a few blocks to your office. Or you can drive for about 20 minutes and park in your own special parking space. My guess is the doctor will just drive. So will the person who visits their friend who lives in Madrona in the middle of the day. I can understand why these people don’t want to have that drive be any more inconvenient than it already is.

        But that doesn’t explain why they would object to better bus service to the island. Eastgate is a major employer. Issaquah employs a fair number as well. There are also places out there that are worthy destinations. It seems very shortsighted to ignore the potential of better bus service, even if you don’t see yourself using it every day.

      6. Ross – I was responding to Ben comments, so I don’t think I disagree with any of the points you made. With or without improved bus service, access to East King from MI will be improved during peak because they will have an extra lane that wasn’t there before.

        And yes, definitely some people will continue to drive into Seattle for good reasons, and their commute will be worse. But I feel comfortable asserting that most MI-to-Seattle commuters are heading to areas served by Link … and certainly will be served by Link + Madison BRT.

  3. What is the predicted ridership on Link light rail across the I-90 floating bridge per weekday? Not the entire ridership on East Link. But how many people per day will actually cross the I-90 floating bridge? Many trips on East Link will not cross the floating bridge, e.g. Mercer Island to Bellevue; Rainier Ave station to downtown; Bellevue to Redmond; etc. ST must have a projection for the number of passengers who will actually cross the I-90 floating bridge per weekday, but I can’t find it anywhere.


    1. East Link proposal claims 50K riders daily by 2030. We know this estimate in based in part on 2030 population estimates, which we have exceeded 12 years early.

      Sound transit doesn’t break down ridership estimates per leg, but I imagine numbers across the bridge will be similar to ulink in its first year considering major employers are expected to continue to grow in Seattle and Bellevue.

      1. How can ST possibly project total ridership on East Link without estimating how many passengers are on each leg of the total route? ST must have that information. They would have to have projected boardings and deboardings at each station in each direction on East Link to have a total ridership projection. Are they just not revealing this information to the public?

      2. @Chad – depends on if it was a top down or bottoms up forecast. A macro model could have broken East Link into sections for modeling purposes without trying to distinguish between individual stations. It’s entirely possible S Bellevue & MI were grouped together (to be Metro re-route agnostic) or MI and Judkins were grouped together.

        The US Census projects by how many people King County will growth. They won’t tell you how many people will move into your street. See the difference?

    2. I have found one source: The Lynnwood Link EIS ridership report from 2012. It shows 36,000 average weekday riders (18K + 18K) west of Mercer Island on the floating bridge. The report was posted to the web from a non-ST site. It’s web address is here with the raw 2035 forecasts between stations over the floating bridge diagrammed in Figure 2-7: (Note: Appendix B at the end shows a 2011 estimate if the rail were operating then)

      If new Judkins Park riders into and out of Seattle and riders traveling only on the Eastside are added, I could easily see how that 50,000 East Link number that Jack mentions above would be in the ballpark

      The actual results on opening day could easily be different. The East Main Station was at SE 8th in this forecast. The ST3-funded extension into Downtown Redmond isn’t assumed and that should open well before 2035. Finally, the data in this report is now several years old and was likely derived from 2000 or 2010 behaviors as well as now-stale forecasts about job and housing growth patterns, and parking costs.

      Sadly, ST does not appear to want to publish more recent ridership forecast diagrams on the web.

      1. I wonder how many people take the bus over I-90 each day now? It isn’t that hard to figure out how many take ST buses. The 550 has about 11,000 riders a day. But about 10% just ride within Seattle, and about 10% just ride within the East Side. The 554 has about 4,000 riders, but about 15% just ride on the East Side (it has way fewer people riding just within Seattle, probably because it doesn’t use the tunnel). So roughly 12,500 people with those two buses. Those are the only ST buses, and I don’t know the numbers for Metro buses. A lot of those are commuter only buses, but they seem to run quite often. If I had to guess, i would say another 5,000 or so.

        This means ST expects transit ridership to roughly double along that corridor with the addition of ST. That seems reasonable. Link will add some good direct stops to what is available with the 550. Speed, especially in the reverse commute direction, should improve dramatically. headways should improve (again, mostly in the reverse commute direction). It doesn’t have the same dynamic as Northgate (where Link will likely dramatically increase transit ridership for several reasons) but it should see a major uptick.

      2. I think the forecasts are reasonable too, RossB. I would agree that there is about 15-20k on the floating bridge today. Adding in for job growth in both Downtowns and more rider trips that shift over from a 520 bus crossing, the 36k seems doable — and maybe even a little low!

    3. The I-90 Integrated Transit Service study has number, although it is a couple years old now.

      Appendix B.4 (page 40), shows 2011 PM peak ridership at approximately 4,300 across the floating bridge (both directions combined). 2035 East Link FEIS ridership is ~13,700, of which 12,100 are on trains and the balance on buses. Note that the East Link FEIS does not assume bus truncation. The proposed bus truncation would shift everyone to trains and result in a slight bump in ridership to 13,800 in 2035, split 7,800 eastbound and 6,000 westbound. The ridership increase is due to increased bus ridership from east of Mercer Island.

      1. Note that in this study ridership DOES NOT equal boardings; this study is looking at number of people on transit past two screenlines, in this case the floating bridge and East Channel bridge.

    4. I’m not a numbers guy but a minimum is the existing 550, 554, 212, 214, 216, 217, 218, and 219. (Note: the ST routes stop on Mercer Island; the Metro ones don’t.) The 550 is ST’s busiest route with six-minute peaks, crushloads, and even Sunday afternoons standing room only. Link will shave ten minutes off the Westlake-Bellevue travel time, be more capacious, smoother, more all-day frequency, and a much better Judkins Park station accessible from both Rainier and 23rd, so all that should increase ridership significantly. Plus the one-seat rides from e.g., Capitol Hill to the Spring District, which will benefit me. Rainier Valley is gentrifying with people living there and working on Mercer Island and the Eastside and shopping there, but the Rainier flyer station is so godawful and some say the walkway down to the 7 is so dark and unsafe that it deters people from transferring there; all that will change with Link.

  4. I was hoping that they would have made these new HOV lanes HOT, and that might also help with the Island Crest Way concerns, but alas that doesn’t appear to be happening. I wonder what can be done to push towards that, if that is a good thing.

    1. This is just a replacement for the lanes Link is displacing. HOT lanes would require a whole new state project, a funding source to build it, a contract with the toll-operating vendor, and — worst of all from the legislature’s perspective — a vote to expand tolls. That would further anger the constituents that want to get rid of the tolls on 405. Plus it would require negotiating with the feds over whether HOT lanes on this part of I-90 are legal.

      1. Just as a side note the original I 90 bride building 1940 was bond and tolled until 1949 when the bonds were paid off.

  5. Does anyone know how early MI P&R fills up post South-Bellevue Way closure?

    1. It has been filling up about 20 minutes earlier than before South Bellevue closed, or about 7:10-7:15am. Keep in mind this is a holiday week and we will see the R8A changes for next week’s commute. I anticipate it filling prior to 7am next week.

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