We recently wrote about Sound Transit’s updated plans for SR 522 Stride. In this update, Sound Transit revealed that it wants to drop plans to run its Stride line to Woodinville at half frequency (and without any BRT infrastructure east of Bothell). Instead, Sound Transit intends to run an ST Express peak-only bus from Woodinville to Bellevue Transit Center every 20 minutes, with a shorter Woodinville to I-405 & SR 522 bus during off-peak hours (also every 20 minutes). While the desire to preserve reliability for the rest of the BRT line is sensible, the proposed solutions here are both expensive and narrowly focused. While excellent for people heading to Bellevue and Bothell, Seattle-bound passengers are faced with a long and circuitous ride on East Link, where they will detour to the farther I-90 bridge. It’s even worse for UW-bound passengers, who have to decide between a long J-shaped trip on I-405 and I-90, or a 3-seat ride on SR 522. Because of this, I propose that Sound Transit and King Country Metro should study a route to UW Station rather than Bellevue.
Today, the most similar bus service to what I am suggesting is King County Metro’s route 311, a peak-oriented express route from Woodinville to downtown Seattle. It only runs during peak hours, limiting its general usefulness. However, when it is running, it saves a lot of time compared to other options. It provides a fast connection to Seattle for Woodinville, the northern part of Kirkland, and the 520 freeway stations:
Off-peak, riders are currently left with slower options to get to downtown Seattle (and other destinations on the west side of the lake). And during peak, route 311 runs in one direction only, requiring expensive deadheading (and missing potential reverse-commutes to Kirklands Evergreen hospital). Worse yet, route 311 makes the slow trek both to downtown, then through downtown. This costs so much time and money that it caused Metro to truncate the 255 at UW Station in March. While only saving riders time during busy peak hours, this frees up a significant amount of service hours at all times. This change helped Metro to boost route 255 to 15 minute headways off-peak and on weekends, bringing frequent weekend bus service to Kirkland for the first time.
With route 311, truncating to UW (using the same path and layover location as route 255) could save service to allow it to run more frequently during peak. This is because ending it at UW would save between 12 and 25 minutes per trip. On its own, this truncation could pay for roughly 10 minute frequency during the period for which it currently operates. Since the route is shorter, it would also make it easier to run the route in the reverse direction as well, as the bus would be able to make more back-and-forth runs between Woodinville and Seattle (which few trips currently do). Creating reverse-peak service would be almost free at this point, because the actual route would already spend very little time on surface streets and more time on freeways, which would be the fastest way back to the start of the route anyway.
This change would improve the route today. But in 2024/5, things could really come together. This route would benefit from capital projects planned for Stride, as well as the new Montlake/SR 520 interchange under construction. Together, this would add three new freeway stations to the hypothetical route, all with direct HOV/HOT access: I-405 & SR 522 in Bothell, I-405 and NE 85 street in Kirkland, and SR 520 and Montlake Boulevard in Seattle. These extra stops add connections that make this route more effective as a general purpose route with very little time added.
If Sound Transit is willing to run its proposed Woodinville bus to UW instead of Bellevue, then on its own it could run around every 25 to 30 minutes. But if Metro contributed some of its own resources to this route (a bit like how Pierce Transit partially funds route 595 for service west of the Narrows) by consolidating the entirety of the current route 311 into this new route, then it could run every 12 minutes or so for a few hours longer than today’s 311 (though how much longer is unclear since details of the proposed Bellevue to Woodinville service remain TBD). If you further consolidate resources from routes 237, 252, and 257, that may be enough to extend 30 minute service throughout the day and into the evening. This would further optimize the route, since this service would be able to convert some of its part-time operation to full-time, which is (on average) cheaper per service hour. From here, frequent midday and weekend service would be a laudable stretch goal, and may be able to happen over the course of time.
If Sound Transit and King County Metro were to make this change, it would benefit not just riders from Woodinville, but also riders from Kirkland as well as connecting service. A route to UW instead of Bellevue would dramatically improve all trips to Seattle and most other places along Link. Meanwhile, Bellevue-bound passengers would be slowed only a bit, by being required to transfer to I-405 Stride or route 532.