Things are getting busy on the Eastside. Light rail tracks and guideways are popping up around Bellevue and Redmond, in a preview of the future of transit on the Eastside. But with the June closure of the Montlake freeway station, SR 520 is about to get busy as well. And with Metro considering various options for truncating 520 bus service at UW Station to take advantage of our existing light rail network, the old life of transit on 520 as an Eastside-downtown workhorse may be finally coming to a close.
Some of this has been a long time coming. Ever since the plan to connect Redmond and Bellevue to Seattle with East Link was approved, the days of the frequent 545 route to downtown Seattle were numbered. Once planning for U-Link restructures began, planners belatedly realized the potential utility in removing buses from downtown in favor of a UW Link transfer, a plan that has (to date) nothing to show for it except evening and weekend 542 service (and even that was likely only done because of the closure of the Montlake freeway station).
There have been various discussions on how to use SR 520 for transit in the long term. Sound transit 2 envisioned a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network, which has apparently devolved into more frequency on the most popular bus routes on the bridge already. There have also naturally been discussions on building light rail on SR-520, becoming more relevant since WSDOT has kept the option of light rail on 520 in consideration in recent designs (realistically meaning that the rail could be build without needing to demolish and reconstruct the main spans of the bridge). Seattle Subway has had shifting opinions on this, at one point favoring a new light rail bridge from Kirkland to Sand Point, then coming around to proposing light rail on 520 and connecting the line to a real First Hill subway.
Though the possibility of light rail on SR 520 is exciting and would dramatically transform how commuters in the Eastside get to Seattle, it’s easy to forget how large of a project that is and how far off it would be. Sound Transit is pushing the limits of its building ability with Sound Transit 3, meaning that work on a 520 line would likely extend well past the 2041 timeframe of the last ST3 projects. Further complicating matters is that construction beyond this point is facing fierce competition from other priorities, such as Ballard-UW, extensions of the planned Ballard and West Seattle lines, and filling holes in our network in First Hill and Belltown. With light rail coming to I-90, many will view an additional line on 520 as redundant and unnecessary. With many (and ofter better) projects competing for resources, it’s hard to think that SR 520 will get light rail on any reasonable timeframe.
The good news? I actually don’t believe that light rail on the 520 bridge is necessary at this point, for a few reasons:
- The bridge itself does not have a dedicated bus lane, but it does have the next best thing: HOV 3+ lanes. Convincing WSDOT to convert an HOV 2 lane to HOV 3 is like pulling teeth, but the 520 bridge has them today. Furthermore, all vehicles (including HOV 3+) are subject to a toll, which is an additional incentive to get people to take transit across the bridge, or to take I-90 instead if they must drive (both of which leave more room on the bridge for buses).
- There are already two left-side freeway stations on SR-520 between I-405 and the bridge, where light rail would be should we decide to build it. These stations, as they stand today, are almost as high quality from a bus priority and access standpoint as it is possible to build. To access them, buses exit from an existing HOV 3+ lane into a dedicated bus-only lane that extends through both freeway stations all the way to the bridge!
- There is direct HOV and bus access at 108th Ave NE, allowing buses from S. Kirkland and Bellevue (both future light rail connection points) to enter the freeway in the HOV 3+ lanes.
- Starting this year, SDOT is pouring money into a redesigned Montlake boulevard/SR 520 interchange that has direct HOV 3 access and inline bus stops, that UW-bound buses can use to avoid the long queue of cars at the general purpose ramp.
- SDOT is building a reversible direct access access ramp from the SR 520 HOV 3+ lanes to the I-5 express lanes, which will continue as a fifth express lane until Mercer Street, which will be a direct entrance/exit to South Lake Union. When ramp opens in 2023, it will be bus only to start (though it’s unclear why HOVs would be initially excluded), with HOV access coming later. This completely solves an issue that has been puzzling transit planners for years, who have been contemplating painfully circuitous routing to try to directly serve SLU while avoiding a slow downtown. The interim solution is a decent-but-not-ideal route 544, which gets off at the first downtown exit it can safely reach, and heads up a relatively non-congested Fairview avenue, avoiding Mercer Street like the plague.
- There are lower-quality right-side freeway stations in Redmond at NE 40th and NE 51st streets, in the vicinity of Microsoft and East Link stations. Though sub-optimal, these stations are past the biggest bottleneck (namely the bridge), and have the benefit of an unusual right-side HOV 2 lane running from I-405 to just north of NE 51st street (with breaks in it to allow SOVs to access freeway exits).
While this may not be the 520 universe you might build from scratch, the fact that this is all already happening and will be fully complete by 2024 with no tax increases, ballot measures, and fights over tunnels is something to be taken full advantage of, rather than torn up to squeeze light rail into. To that end, I propose a comprehensive network of SR-520 buses that serve places all over the east side, combining to form a “virtual light rail line” across 520 that could take advantage of every piece of HOV and bus priority to be nearly as fast as an actual light rail line.
Here are some broad themes:
- Though this can be nearly as fast as rail would be, it still would probably be somewhat unreliable (though this could be mitigated with some schedule padding at strategic locations). It also has much less capacity than light rail, which is stretched today by peak-level demand on the 541/542. This is primarily mitigated by high frequency service, where there are multiple branches (4 peak, 3 off-peak) that are all frequent on their own, overlapping on 520 creating very frequent service (2.5 minutes peak, 5 minutes off-peak).
- Bellevue is getting express service to UW. This is significant because Sound Transit currently plans on having riders from Bellevue to UW take the blue line south through downtown Seattle (a hefty 29 minutes). Though they need to draw the line somewhere, I feel this puts Bellevue at the point of highest inconvenience, and many riders (especially those heading to places north on Link) will be turned off by needing to do a large amount of backtracking.
- Sammamish would be well-connected to the regional transportation network, with nearly every destination being two seats or fewer away. North and south Sammamish service is now split at S. Sammamish P&R, where the north route takes the 520 bridge and the south route takes the I-90 bridge. There is no longer a dedicated Sammamish route, as now the Redmond and Issaquah routes simply continue to Sammamish at half frequency, eliminating the need to transfer. This makes Sammamish, which (not incorrectly, in my opinion) felt like a non-consideration in ST3, less of an afterthought by making some sensible tweaks to bus service that already terminates near Sammamish.
- South Lake Union is a major destination, which is served during peak by the Redmond lines during (the Kirkland/Bellevue lines go to UW during peak, and all lines go to UW during off-peak). Since the ramp to the I-5 express lanes/Mercer street is reversible, only going one direction at a time, the configuration proposed has a loop through downtown (ideally with a 5-10 minute layover somewhere downtown for buffer time) that starts at SLU and goes counter-clockwise in the morning, and starts at downtown going clockwise in the evening. This ensures that all 520 bus trips (both SLU and UW) have a connection to Link (Westlake and UW, respectively).
Overall, this would require a big increase in service hours, so realistically this kind of thing might be tied to a 2024 ST4 vote, in which ST could fund all these lines. But for the time being, I’ve proposed a Metro/ST split that flips the agency of some existing lines:
- The 555/556 would be replaced by the 254, and Metro would operate this route.
- The 269 and all the peak Sammamish and Bear Creek Seattle expresses would be replaced by the 543 (peak), 546 (off-peak), and the extended half of 554 trips, all of which ST would operate.
Here are some details by route:
- 255: The same 255 from Kirkland to UW that is coming in March 2020. Peak headways: 10-12 minutes (slightly worse than 2020), midday/weekend: 15 minutes (same as 2020), evening: 30 minutes (same as 2020)
- 254: A new route similar to the 555/556 that replaces both, and provides all-day service from UW to S. Kirkland, Bellevue TC, Eastgate and Bellevue College. S. Kirkland P&R is added because Sound Transit operates the 555/556 along 112th Ave NE instead of I-405, believing it to be faster, so adding a stop at S. Kirkland to this route is relatively non-disruptive (because it’s already on the road to S. Kirkland P&R anyway). This route also continues to Bellevue College and Eastgate, since this idea opens up the possibility of giving Bellevue College & Eastgate a fast ride to Bellevue TC all-day, and I don’t believe this route needs to continue to Issaquah (since the 554 will be more frequent by this point). My preferred routing has it take NE 6th to I-90 (utilizing the express toll lanes available in 2024), but this requires using the right-side exits to switch between 405 and 90, so routing along Bellevue Way or the 271 route (with no stops between BTC and BC) may be more sensible. Truncating the 271 in Medina (ideally at one of the freeway stations, and not cross the bridge to Seattle) could partially pay for this route. Peak headways are 10-12 minutes, midday/weekend: 15 minutes, evening: 30 minutes.
- 544: A variant of the 544 coming in 2020, except more resembling the 545. This route would replace the 545, and would serve downtown Redmond and Redmond TC (rather than Overlake P&R). There would be no stop at S. Kirkland P&R (but an added route 254 would ease transfers to this route from S.Kirkland). It would serve SLU using the previously described loop (a more convenient route than route 544 in 2020). Unlike the 545, this route won’t go to Bear Creek, leaving that to the 543 (which offers a faster and more direct route to Seattle than the 545 does). Peak headways: 10-12 minutes (slightly better than 2020). No service off-peak, as that is offered by the 546.
- 543: A different variant of the coming 544, except skipping downtown Redmond to serve Bear Creek and Sammamish. Meant to complement the 544,this route takes a direct route between Sammamish, Bear Creek, and SLU. Residents of Sammamish who want to take transit to Seattle or Overlake, but struggles with the weird peak-oriented service that takes them down to I-90, would find this route easier to use. Peak headways: 10-12 minutes, no off-peak service (route 546 is available off-peak)
- 546: An off-peak-only route that combines the 543 and 544, and goes to UW instead of SLU. Service follows the path of the 542 in UW, the 545 in Redmond, and half of the trips continue to Sammamish. Midday/weekend headways: 15 minutes, weekend: 30 minutes.
- 554: This route will be largely unchanged, presuming it exists in some form in the East Link restructure. It will likely terminate either at Mercer Island Station or South Bellevue Station (in this case, likely also continuing to Bellevue TC, but could sensibly terminate at S. Bellevue if route 254 is introduced). The important tweak to this route would be extending half of the trips from Issaquah Highlands P&R to South Sammamish P&R, providing the southern portion of Sammamish access to Seattle and Bellevue via I-90 (whereas the northern part accesses Seattle and Bellevue via 520 and the Redmond routes). It seems like such an opportunity that frequent 554 service is coming nearly to Sammamish, and then stops (except for a few late night trips on the 554 heading back to the base through Sammamish). Headways would likely be comparable to the 543/546, but depend on what the headways for the restructured 554 will be.
With that, I think this transit network on 520 will provide service comparable to light rail on the bridge, without:
- Absolutely needing to transfer to another bus route to get where you want to go on the eastside.
- Spending a lot of money, years, and political capital on building rail when there is already top-tier bus stations and freeway access either built already or under construction.
- Focusing Link construction away from places that really need Link light rail service to get much better (like UW-Ballard, Metro 8, or a number of others), and better bus service simply won’t do it.
Let me know what you all think in the comments!