Bus Rapid Transit on I-405 and SR 522 is likely to be delayed. Only the Burien to Bellevue service is now expected to open on time in 2024. Expectations for service on the northern part of I-405 and SR 522 have slipped into 2025.
The delays were first publicly shared at last Thursday’s Sound Transit Board meeting. (though implicit in the latest financial plan from last Fall where 2024 BRT ridership expectations were dramatically lowered).
In Bothell, Sound Transit intends to open a bus base by 2023. The update to the Board flags some issues with permitting and right of way acquisition. If the base can open by 2023, however, that will open the way to an on-time start of service on south I-405 between Bellevue and Burien in 2024. Other construction on south I-405 is mostly being conducted as part of WSDOT’s expansion of express toll lanes in the area and is on schedule. Sound Transit is in final design for the in-line stop at NE 44th in Renton and was about to start construction before the COVID-19 delays intervened. Pre-construction work is underway at the planned transit center in South Renton.
The risk of delays in opening north I-405 service were highlighted by staff last August following a major change of scope in that area. In the 2019 session, the Legislature approved funding to add a second express toll lane roughly between SR 522 and SR 527. This included direct access ramps at Canyon Park and SR 522. To take advantage of the expanded express lanes, Sound Transit must fund an in-line station at Brickyard too. Absent Brickyard center ramps, the BRT would have to skip Brickyard or only use the outer lanes north of SR 522. The state-funded express lane expansion stops just short of Brickyard.
This improves I-405 BRT service in the area because it will allow the BRT to operate in the express lanes rather than the mixed traffic outer lanes. But it exposes the BRT schedule to the risk of any delays in a tight WSDOT schedule, and has required extensive fresh design work. Sound Transit will need to make a decision this summer to fund those ramps. Design work is ongoing for the Brickyard ramps and appears more complicated than initially expected. The cost of the inline station at Brickyard was initially estimated last year at about $75 million, of which about half would be recouped through savings elsewhere. But it’s worth it. Moving to the express lanes with inline stations is an important part of why Sound Transit has been able to reduce expected travel time on the north corridor by one-third vs the ST3 conceptual project.
On SR 522, there is even greater uncertainty. Currently, construction is trending toward a 2025 service start, but Sound Transit is not yet committing to that date. The challenges are around an unexpectedly complex design and property acquisition process. BAT lanes exist along much of SR 522, and another section is under construction near Bothell. But the remaining parts are mostly where it was not easy to build in the past. That means more structural work than originally anticipated, and about 100 property acquisitions.
Sound Transit prefers to have substantially complete lines before commencing revenue service. While it would still be possible to run a limited service open on all lines in 2024, it’s preferred to wait until each line is far enough along so the line can open in its entirety.
On a more cheerful note, we did get a closer look at the livery of the new coaches last week. The attractive palette, termed “BRT wave” has white and ‘wave blue’ primary colors. Secondary colors are ‘golden ticket’, ‘soft teal’, and light gray. It’s a distinctive look not likely to be confused with other local agencies. (As Bruce noticed, the mix of colors is similar to New York City’s MTA Select Bus Service). The station branding was shared last year.
Despite some apparent concerns about cost increases in the Brickyard area, the overall projects are trending below ST3 estimates. An update to the Citizen Oversight Panel last year indicated a likely $140 million saving over the representative BRT projects. Those are conceptual estimates only, with a budget to be established during final design, but leave the agency well placed to handle any new costs at Brickyard.