At an open house on Thursday evening, WSDOT and Sound Transit shared design concepts for the I-405 BRT station at NE 85th St in Kirkland. The station is an ST3 project opening in 2024. The latest design features better connections to local transit and an improved pedestrian environment. None of these make up for the poor location choice. The station will serve just a few hundred riders daily after a capital outlay planned to exceed $300 million.
The NE 85th/I-405 interchange is located one mile northeast of the downtown Kirkland transit center. Today, it is a large cloverleaf with 85th St passing below the freeway. From the west, sidewalks end a half-mile before the station at 6th St, from which there is a 180 feet elevation gain to the freeway. To the east is a low-density commercial strip with modest prospects for redevelopment. This is an unpromising starting point, but the design makes a strong effort to create a station that is as accessible as possible.
The ST3 representative plan pried apart the north- and south-bound lanes of the highway, placing BRT stations at highway level, accessed from the street below via stairs and elevators. Planned stops for local buses under the overpass turned out to be impractical because of conflicts with traffic entering and exiting the highway. A modified version of the representative project moved the local bus stops further away. That meant pedestrian access moved to long steep pedestrian bridges across the highway ramps. With long switchbacks, it would take 6-10 minutes for riders to get from a local bus to the BRT stop. The added land acquisitions and extensive construction greatly increased the cost over the ST3 budget.
The Separated Transit Interchange Concept
The solution was to radically rethink the station design. WSDOT now favors a separated transit interchange that rebuilds the entire interchange on three levels. On the uppermost level, the mainline of the highway is moved far outwards. Transit operations are consolidated on the middle level of the structure, with bus stops for the BRT (north-south) and local transit stops (east-west). The middle level has direct access to the express toll lanes for the BRT and for cars. NE 85th St is on the lowest level.
The user experience is far better this way. Transferring bus riders have a relatively short walk on the middle level of the interchange. Pedestrians and bikes arriving from 85th St have a separated path from east and west. The on- and off-ramps to the highway general purpose lanes are moved closer together, reducing the grade change and avoiding the pedestrian ramp switchbacks.
The capital cost of this option is $235-$260 million, in line with the $260 million assumed for the original representative project in the ST3 plan.
The ST3 plan also funds bus-only lanes between the highway and 6th St near downtown Kirkland. That corridor is served by Metro 248 and 235, operating on 30- to 40-minute headways on weekdays. The Metro Connects plan anticipates frequent service (every 15 minutes all day) on NE 85th by 2025.
Ridership expectations are very low
The City of Kirkland estimates 250-300 daily transfers at NE 85th in 2025. Sound Transit estimates fewer than 1,000 even by 2040. The design improvements, laudable though they are, cannot overcome the lack of activity in the neighborhood. The immediate neighbors are a Costco and an auto dealership, neither of which appears likely to redevelop soon. One mixed use project is in permitting about two blocks east.
The BRT station requires too much out of direction travel to appeal to most riders in the market. Riders from downtown Kirkland have more direct service to Bellevue. Who, as they travel south to Bellevue, would choose a two-seat ride where the first seat goes to the northeast?
Local buses on NE 85th will be lower frequency than the direct RapidRide service to Bellevue planned for 2025, and the RapidRide will connect to many more useful destinations. Few will skip the RapidRide for a less frequent connecting bus up the hill to the BRT stop.
The more probable audience for the BRT station includes (a) travel between Rose Hill and Bellevue, and (b) travel between central Kirkland and BRT stations to the north in Bothell and Lynnwood. Those are not large transit markets.
Can we do better?
The NE 85th station is a large investment, one of the most expensive stations in the ST3 system. At a planned $305 million ($260 million for the station, and another $45 million for connecting bus lanes), it is fully 30% of the I-405 BRT program. But however irrelevant the station is to most transit users, there appears no flexibility to shift the investment to projects “not consistent with the ST3 plan”.
The latest design at least improves on the original concept in the ST3 plan. Cyclists gain a mostly separated safe connection across the freeway. Drivers gain direct access to the express lanes. The transfer environment between buses is more pleasant.
Because construction will take several years, planning for NE 85th is accelerated. The next review by the Kirkland City Council is on Tuesday. The Sound Transit Board is expected to advance the preferred design concept to the next stage this summer. Project feedback is welcomed by Sound Transit (email firstname.lastname@example.org), and by Kirkland City Council (email email@example.com).