As of 2016, the RapidRide E Line has higher ridership than any other King County Metro route, averaging approximately 17,000 weekday riders. Because it is such a popular route and runs almost entirely on Aurora Avenue, I think it is an obvious candidate for upgrades to improve capacity and reliability. While interesting ideas about upgrading the E to elevated rail to serve Aurora Avenue, Queen Anne, Belltown, and First Hill have been floated around, such a project would be extremely expensive and is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Because of this, I think bus rapid transit is the best option along Aurora Avenue. To create a good environment for transit ridership along the Aurora corridor, significant pedestrian and bicycle improvements could be made as a part of the project. I’m not an engineer or a transit planner, so I won’t be able to provide cost or trip time estimates for these upgrades, but they should be relatively inexpensive compared to light rail and streetcar projects, and could probably be financed without much help from Sound Transit.
When describing the alignment of the new RapidRide E Line, I am assuming that the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Tunnel, Northgate Link, and all associated projects are complete.
Unlike its current iteration, the upgraded RapidRide E Line would lay over and serve a new station at Colman Dock. I’ve always been irritated by Colman Dock’s poor transit accessibility given its status as a major transport hub, and terminating a high capacity service there would definitely solve some of those issues. Of course, building such a station would require significant changes to Colman Dock. Although somewhat far-fetched, a new ferry terminal could be constructed with bus bays at the street level for easy transfers between Washington State ferries, foot ferries, and buses.
From the waterfront, buses would travel along the Columbia Street pathway before turning onto 3rd avenue, serving stations along a transit-only 3rd Avenue. To travel between 3rd Avenue and Aurora Avenue, buses would travel along the left curbs of Battery Street and Wall Street in BAT lanes. Instead of serving the current stops, buses would serve a new station between Wall Street and Aurora Avenue at Denny Way. Buses would travel on center-running lanes along Aurora Avenue, serving an island platform immediately south of Harrison Street, prior to driving onto the SR 99 segment of Aurora Avenue.
This is where it gets tricky. Aurora Avenue is completely devoid of crosswalks between Downtown and 68th Street. Unfortunately, this means that all stations would need to be in the median of the road and served by a pedestrian overpass with ADA accessibility (in other words, a frequently malfunctioning elevator), or buses would have to merge through general traffic to access BAT lanes. I am drafting this under the assumption that Seattleites will be reluctant to pay additional property taxes, so in this version, buses will merge to BAT lanes immediately after entering the center of SR 99 to serve a new station pair at Aloha Street. Although unlikely, it is possible that a traffic signal could be used to aid this merging. I chose Aloha Street because, with a new pedestrian overpass, it could provide an easy pedestrian connection between Lake Union Park, the Seattle Center, and Queen Anne Hill. To compensate for the removal of stops along Aurora Avenue, new ADA-accessible pathways between Aurora Avenue and Dexter Avenue would be constructed.
North of Aloha Street, buses would serve existing stations at Galer Street and Lynn Street before crossing a renovated Aurora Bridge. Widened pedestrian and bicycle paths would be surrounded by some sort of suicide-prevention barrier underneath the existing bridge. In place of the old pedestrian walkway on top of the bridge, a jersey barrier would be erected in the center to prevent traffic collisions. Curbside lanes would be converted to transit-only, except for vehicles entering and exiting at 38th Street. A new station pair would be constructed between 38th Street and Bridge Way to serve the Fremont neighborhood.
North of 38th Street, buses would serve the existing station pair at 46th Street. Unlike the current service pattern northbound and southbound buses would both serve the Linden deviation. To travel between Linden Avenue and Aurora Avenue, buses would use the general purpose access ramps located approximately at 61st Street on either side of Aurora Avenue. The grass median of Woodland Place immediately north of 65th Street would be rebuilt into a station. Linden Avenue would feature all-day BAT lanes instead of parking, with a station pair at 72nd Street.
North of the junction with Linden Avenue, buses would utilize transit-only lanes in the center of Aurora Avenue, with stations built on island platforms between the two lanes. Low barriers could be constructed between general-purpose and transit lanes to improve pedestrian safety and prevent unauthorized encroachment onto the busway. Stations on this stretch of Aurora Avenue would generally be spaced somewhat further apart than they are right now to improve travel times. Center platforms would be built at 77th Street, 85th Street, 90th Street, 97th Street, 105th Street, 115th Street, 125th Street, 130th Street, 137th Street, 145th Street, 152nd Street, 160th Street, 165th Street, 175th Street, 185th Street, and 192nd Street. New crosswalks and traffic signals would be needed for stations at 97th Street and 137th Street.
Instead of terminating at Aurora Village Transit Center as it does now, the RapidRide E Line would extend north into Snohomish County. After serving an island platform at 200th Street, buses would turn left onto 205th Street towards I-5. After briefly traveling in general-purpose lanes, buses would transition into center-running lanes after merging into SR-104, serving an island platform at 76th Avenue. The center-running lanes would extend east of I-5, allowing buses to completely bypass congestion created by vehicles entering and exiting I-5. An access ramp would be tunneled below I-5 and SR-104 to enable traffic merging onto southbound I-5 from the east to do so without crossing the busway. To access the Mountlake Terrace Transit Center, buses would travel in general-purpose lanes on 205th Street, 56th Avenue, and 236th Street, serving stations with bus bulbs at approximately 58th Place and the junction of 56th Avenue and 236th Street. Buses would serve a station and layover at Mountlake Terrace Transit Center to connect with Community Transit routes and the future Lynnwood Link extension. Throughout the route, transit-only lanes would be enforced by traffic cameras. Intersection treatments will vary. Signal priority will be implemented at all intersections except along the Third Avenue Spine and perhaps a few other locations at-grade crossings with other high-capacity transit services exist. In addition to signal priority, left turns will be prohibited at most intersections along center-running segments of the alignment, except where there is no intact street grid and therefore no other way to access certain side roads, as well as a few very high-traffic junctions, such as 85th Street, 105th Street, 145th Street, and 160th Street. More detailed information on intersection treatments is provided in the map, which can be accessed via a link at the bottom of this article.
Vehicles and stations
All station platforms would be edged with yellow textured strips level with the floors of the buses, and all stations would feature ticket vending machines and ORCA card readers to speed boarding, in addition to real-time arrival information. To encourage widespread use of ORCA cards, stations would also be equipped with machines to vend and reload ORCA cards. Bike racks under camera surveillance would be located at all stations. All stations would feature ample seating, well-lit and covered waiting areas, signs that light up at night for higher visibility, and camera surveillance to to promote safety and discourage bicycle theft. To maintain station quality and functionality, all stations would be inspected routinely for malfunctioning signs, ticket vending machines, or ORCA card readers.
To prevent greenhouse emissions, vehicles would make use of hybrid-electric technology or, if possible, run on battery power alone or hydrogen fuel cell technology. Charging or refueling stations could be located at Colman Dock and Mountlake Terrace Transit Center, in addition to whichever bus base the coaches would operate out of. Trolleybuses would obviously not be possible due to the high speeds of travel along Aurora Avenue, especially portions south of 74th Street.
The vehicles would be 60-foot low floor articulated buses similar to existing RapidRide coaches, with some exceptions. Most notably, the vehicles would feature five doors to serve platforms on both sides of the bus. For rider safety, right and left rear view mirrors on buses would be equipped with flashing strobe lights similar to the ones on buses that operate in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel. Despite the presence of level boarding and off-board fare payment, coaches would still be equipped with ADA ramps, coin slots, and ORCA card readers that would be used in the event of a reroute, off-board fare payment becoming temporarily unavailable at a station, or E Line coaches being assigned to other routes. To prevent service delays and promote bicycle use, coaches would not have front bike racks, instead featuring an on-board storage area in front of the rear left door similar to Swift and RapidRide G Line vehicles.
Potential service changes
Given the very high capacity of the improved RapidRide E line, it would make sense to restructure other bus routes around it to improve connections to other destinations and upzone surrounding areas to take advantage of the newly expanded capacity. One possible project would be to extend Sound Transit’s SR 522/523 BRT past the 145th Street Link station to Shoreline Community College. Stations could be shared between the Aurora Avenue BRT and the Sound Transit BRT at 145th Street, 152nd Street, and 160th Street.
To prevent delays along Aurora Avenue between Downtown and 46th Street, Metro Route 5 could be upgraded to RapidRide and modified to serve only stops also served by the E, interlining all the way to the south end of Downtown, where it would either continue to Colman Dock like the E or be routed via Pioneer Square to an alternative terminal. Alternatively, Route 5 could be rerouted south of 46th Street via Fremont Avenue, the Fremont Bridge, and either Dexter Avenue or Westlake Avenue, perhaps being upgraded to RapidRide.
Of these options, I think the best one would be to upgrade the 5 to RapidRide reroute it to Dexter Avenue, because Dexter is much closer to Aurora Avenue than Westlake Avenue is, and King County Metro’s long range plan has Route 5 running on Dexter by 2040. I think upgrading to RapidRide is justified because Route 5 serves a potentially very busy corridor that includes Shoreline Community College, Greenwood, Phinney Ridge, Fremont, Downtown Seattle, and potentially South Lake Union. BAT lanes could be built along the majority of the corridor, replacing street parking. Like the improved E, the 5 could feature express service, possibly deviating to Aurora via 85th and continuing to Downtown via center-running lanes, similar to the current 355. Perhaps even a second express could be added, operating between 85th Street and 45th Street, much like the current 5 Express. Any improvements to Route 5 would include sidewalk construction and other desperately needed pedestrian improvements on Greenwood Avenue north of 112th street.
Routes 26 and 28 would need to be modified as well. I can think a few options. Route 26 could be eliminated and replaced with heavily modified routes 67 and 316, as illustrated in the 2025 version of Metro’s long range plan. Assuming that the Roosevelt HCT is extended to Northgate via 5th Avenue, Route 67 could be rerouted to serve Latona Avenue and Thackeray Place like the current 26. Instead of continuing to Downtown, the route would instead terminate at the U District Station. Route 316 would operate all day, but would terminate at the Roosevelt Station instead of continuing to Downtown. The Northern terminus of Route 316 would likely be modified as well.
Alternatively, routes 26 and 28 could be rerouted onto Dexter Avenue with peak-direction express service along Aurora Avenue, similar to what was in place before the Spring 2016 service changes. However, this alternative would unnecessarily burn service hours on Routes 26 and 28 south of Fremont. To solve this problem, Routes 26 and 28 could be to terminated or through-routed in Fremont, forcing a transfer at 38th Street. For this to work, Routes 131 and 132 would need to terminate in Downtown Seattle or through-route with other routes. For example, they could be routed through Downtown Seattle to serve South Lake Union via the same route as the RapidRide C and H lines, creating an ultra-frequent connection between the 3rd Avenue Spine and South Lake Union.
A service change that would likely result in an increase in ridership would be the introduction of an “E express” service. The E express would serve the same route as the E line as described above, except that it would skip all stations between 77th Street and Harrison Street, instead traveling via central lanes on Aurora Avenue. This service would run at a high frequency, most likely in peak direction only. If Route 5 was upgraded to RapidRide, peak-direction expresses could operate from Greenwood and Phinney avenues as well. Up to two peak routes could be introduced: a route very similar to the existing 5 Express, and another one much like the current. Toll lanes could be created along Aurora Avenue to keep buses running reliably at high speeds, This concept will be discussed further in the “other infrastructure improvements” section.
Pedestrian and bicycle improvements
To improve pedestrian and bicycle safety and encourage transit ridership, a number of pedestrian and bicycle improvements would be included in the project. Chief among them would be improvements to the Interurban Trail and the creation of a bicycle corridor connecting the Interurban Trail to the Burke Gilman Trail, South Ship Canal Trail, and Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop.
There is currently a missing segment of the Interurban Trail between 240th Street in Edmonds and 200th Street in Shoreline. A new bicycle and pedestrian trail would be constructed along the old railroad right of way, with an overpass over Edmonds Way and 205th Street. Further south, a bicycle and pedestrian overpass would span 175th Street. Instead of bicycle lanes running northbound only on Linden Avenue between 145th Street and 128th Street, a bidirectional protected bikeway along the west side of Linden Avenue would constructed, with no adjacent street parking.
The new bicycle corridor would begin at the junction 110th Street and the Interurban Trail just east of Fremont Avenue. From there, bicycles would travel via protected lanes on 110th Street, Park Avenue, 109th Street, Linden Avenue, and 75th Street. To accommodate parked cars, northbound and southbound lanes would be located on the west side of Linden Avenue between 109th Street and 85th Street. After joining Aurora Avenue at 75th Street, the bike lanes would continue south along the west side of Aurora Avenue in both directions, separated from traffic by Jersey barriers. Bike lanes would deviate from Aurora Avenue at 59th Street to intersect with pedestrian bridges over Aurora Avenue in Woodland Park. Immediately north of 50th Street, the exclusive bicycle path would veer west along the north side of 50th Street before transitioning to protected lanes along Fremont Avenue. The protected lanes would continue south along Fremont Avenue all the way to the Fremont Bridge, connecting with the aforementioned network of trails converging there.
To improve ADA accessibility and compensate for the loss of bus stops served by Route 5 along Aurora Avenue, new ADA-accessible pathways between Aurora Avenue and Dexter Avenue would be created, possibly including escalators or (preferably) switchbacked ramps. For more information, refer to the map.
Other infrastructure improvements
All segments of road along the regular E Line route would be repaved with high-strength concrete for improved durability.
To enable the reliable operation of express services, restricted lanes could be put into place along Aurora Avenue south of Green Lake. One option would be variable-rate express toll lanes similar to the ones on I-405. However, the Aurora Avenue toll lanes would differ from the I-405 toll lanes in two ways. Most notably, the lanes would only be tolled in peak direction during peak hours, becoming general-purpose lanes at all other times. Because Aurora Avenue is only six lanes wide, only one lane in each direction would be converted to a peak toll lane. These lanes would be paved with high-strength concrete to withstand heavy bus traffic during rush hour.
To prevent head-on collisions, jersey barriers would be installed between 63rd Street and 50th Street and on the Aurora Bridge. To make room for the jersey barriers, the roadway would be widened slightly through Woodland Park. On the Aurora Bridge, the walkways on the deck of the bridge would be eliminated and replaced with widened bicycle and pedestrian paths suspended below the bridge. The paths would be enclosed by suicide prevention barriers.