Kirkland’s BRT Design

Kirkland’s preferred option for BRT on the Cross-Kirkland Corridor

Last August, Sound Transit selected a Project Priority List to proceed to the next level of study for the ST3 ballot measure. Since then, the agency has been working with other stakeholders to evaluate potential projects. The City of Kirkland, having successfully advocated for a Bus Rapid Transit option on the Eastside Rail Corridor (ERC), has worked with consultants to develop a more comprehensive vision for that service. The first details of their work were shared at a City Council meeting last week. The City is also working with agencies on light rail and I-405 BRT options.

Kirkland is balancing several policy goals. The City is pro-transit, and understands that BRT on the Eastside Rail Corridor offers far better connections to Kirkland’s growing neighborhoods than the alternatives. But the corridor is also a well-loved place to walk and bike. With rails being removed to the north and south of Kirkland, the ERC is shortly anticipated to be a high demand bike corridor with the highest demand through urban neighborhoods in Kirkland and Bellevue. Walk and bike uses would benefit in obvious ways from integration with accessible transit. To these ends, Kirkland is eager to see a transit infrastructure that mostly hugs the eastern side of the corridor, maximizing the space available to trail users and preserving views to the west. Sound Transit originally anticipated transit would follow the legacy rail-bed down the center of the corridor, more closely encroaching on the trail which would be correspondingly pushed toward the edge of the corridor.

The Cross-Kirkland Corridor Master Plan envisions trails and transit uses sharing the right-of-way.
The Cross-Kirkland Corridor Master Plan has walk, bike, and transit uses sharing the right-of-way.

Kirkland bought a 5 3/4 mile section of the Eastside Rail Corridor in April 2012, known locally as the Cross-Kirkland Corridor (CKC). In 2014, the City removed tracks and built a crushed-gravel interim trail along the former rail-bed. The City’s master plan for the Corridor envisions the interim trail eventually being replaced by paved permanent trails alongside transit, with a primary trail mostly following the center of the corridor, and a lower-speed pedestrian-only trail on busier segments. Sound Transit retains an easement on the Corridor for high-capacity transit, as do some other utilities. However, it is unclear whether Sound Transit (as easement holder) or the City (as corridor owner) governs the placement of transit within the corridor. In September, Kirkland contracted with consultants on pre-design of compatible transit infrastructure, seeking to demonstrate to both Sound Transit and other stakeholders that a balanced design is possible.

What they came up with was an engineering design that increased the space for trails at what appears to be reasonable capital cost. Preliminary concept design also looked at pinch points on the corridor in Kirkland and Bellevue. They developed engineering concept solutions through all of the tight areas that do not adversely impact the trail.

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What the Eastside Wants in ST3

Riders wait to board ST Express buses at Bellevue's busy downtown transit center
Riders wait to board ST Express buses at Bellevue’s busy downtown transit center

Several Eastside cities (Bellevue, Redmond, Issaquah, Kirkland, Renton, Sammamish) submitted a joint interest statement to Sound Transit that lays out a shared vision for the ST3 project list. Each city also submitted comments with respect to their particular interests. The joint interest statement was developed in response to concerns that the draft PPL would serve the Eastside poorly, and that the relatively compact central Eastside needed a more comprehensive vision for regional mobility.

A plan for ST3, the Eastside cities argue, must do the following:

“Fund Eastside needs”: ST3 must fully fund investments necessary to meet Eastside transit needs. This is, of course, a shot across the bow of other regional leaders who have looked at the Eastside’s tax revenues as a funding source for spine expansion. Concerns about subarea equity were loudly voiced in several of the City Council meetings where letters to ST3 were approved.

“Connect regional growth centers within the Eastside”: Two projects are called out here; East Link to Redmond, and light rail from Totem Lake to Issaquah. Obviously, extension of East Link is the Eastside’s highest priority, and quite uncontroversial. BRT should be built between Totem Lake and Issaquah if light rail is beyond the financial capacity of the Eastside. Investments in Regional Express within the Eastside are also called for.

“Connect the Eastside with the region”: Here the cities advocate for strengthened connections with the neighboring subareas, including I-405 BRT and Regional Express. The statement is careful to call out how these are multi-subarea investments, implying that East King should not bear the entire cost of I-405 BRT. With the BRT corridor likely to extend from Lynnwood to Seatac, a large portion now lies outside the East King subarea.

“Provide an integrated regional transit system with access enhancements”: The cities are looking for a regional network that integrates ST rail, BRT, express bus and Metro bus services. They also call for TOD and non-motorized access planning as part of ST3. Performance-based initiatives for more efficient use of parking are supported, adding capacity as needed.

“Support system expansion”: This is a call for planning and studies for future system upgrades (and for ST to plan facilities like OMSF early in the process).

The individual cities submitted their own comments, describing their particular needs in greater detail:

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Timing out Ballard to Issaquah via Sand Point

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A couple of days ago there was a great deal of discussion about the merits and costs of a Sand Point crossing. There are two things that a study would find out that everybody would like to know; the monetary cost of the crossing and the potential ridership over the connection. Unfortunately I can’t give any insight into those things. What I can to do is provide some tangible benefits based on travel time using Seattle Subway’s previous posts about the Crossing, Ballard Spur and Better Eastside rail.

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The solution to Sammamish’s Transit Problems is a Gondola

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Last year I was in Olympia for transportation lobby day and I heard something absolutely stupefying. A State Senator advocated for light rail on the Sammamish Plateau. My thought at the time was that a streetcar would be more than enough to serve all of Sammamish transit needs for the foreseeable future. Since then I have learned a great deal about different transit technologies and how the geography of Sammamish makes implementation difficult.

How steep the hills are, both going up to the plateau and internally in the city of Sammamish, precludes all streetcars and cheaper surface light rail alignments (many steep areas are over a 9% grade and some points over 15%). The alternative in my view is a gondola which would uniquely serve trips between Sammamish and Bellevue.

Why Serve Sammamish?

At first glance Sammamish seems to be the exact opposite of the kind of community one would want to serve with transit. It is not dense, nor walkable, bikeable, transit dependent or lower income. People tend to live in houses with two car garages and drive everywhere. An aerial picture of Sammamish could be in the dictionary next to the word sprawl.

The problem is that Sammamish is not going to go away anytime soon. Right now they have a surplus, “AAA” rated bonds and host national events at Sahalee CC (Most recently the 2010 U.S. Senior Open). Furthermore they are part of Sound Transit’s tax district and will feel entitled to some transit in the future. Indeed the Eastside members of the Sound Transit board are already advocating for them to get better coverage in the long range plan.

It’s a matter of opportunity costs in my view. Assuming that people continue to live there and we must serve them with transit, then we want to serve them with high quality transit, so that they won’t feel the need to advocate for more expensive options like Light Rail or high quality BRT.

What are Sammamish’s Transit Problems?

Immediately the problem is that the current transit situation is awful. The 927 was providing the only midday service to Sammamish and only served the center of the city on 2 hour headways because of having two tails. It was the kind of slow, circuitous and infrequent route that gives transit a bad name. However now that it is gone there is a gap between 10AM and 3PM, and on weekends, where there is no service at all. This is a problem because it strands the young, poor and transit dependent people of Sammamish. (I know they exist because I was one.)

Other buses currently serve the area. The 216, 217, 218 are peak expresses to Seattle via I-90. The 554 operates as an early morning and late night alternative for those moving in the peak direction. The only local is the 269 which goes between Microsoft’s campus in Overlake and Issaquah TC. As the core bus service in the area the 269 ought to run all day at reasonable frequencies. However 269 improvements won’t satisfy Sammamish residents. (Also the 269 must be a hard route on the buses due to the hills involved.)

The alternatives to local buses are constrained by geography. The grades are a problem I’ve already mentioned, another problem is the lake. As the crow flies Crossroads mall is the closest to central Sammamish. But Redmond and Issaquah are faster trips because Lake Sammamish creates an over 7 mile gap in east-west transportation.

So what Sammamish needs is a transit system unconstrained by steep grades, that can hook it into Link and Metro’s frequent bus network (such as Rapidride B), and ideally provide a way to bridge this transportation gap as cost effectively as possible. I think a 3S gondola on the route shown above could do that.

Benefits of a Gondola

The proposed gondola would travel from Sammamish, with a station around NE 8th ST and 228th Ave, to Crossroads Mall, with a station at about NE 8th ST and 156th and from there it would continue to Downtown Bellevue going few degrees south at each tower in order to get to Downtown Bellevue Link Station.

The station vicinity in Sammamish has a grocery store, several apartment complexes (one being the only current mixed use area in Sammamish), a teen center, and even some townhouses.

Along the way the gondola would cross Lake Sammamish requiring a span between towers of slightly less than 3 KM (about 1.85 miles); which while an impressive distance, is slightly shorter than the tower distance on the Peak 2 Peak Gondola at Whistler.

Because a 3S gondola is required for the cross lake span, you also get the benefits of the higher speeds. The travel time from Sammamish to Crossroads (assuming a gondola run at 18 MPH) would be cut down to 15 minutes and Sammamish to Downtown Bellevue would be 26 minutes.

Compare this to the current fastest bus trip of 49 minutes from Bellevue TC to Sammamish with most trips being closer to an hour. Also compare 46 minutes from Crossroads mall to Sammamish with most trips taking an 1 and 10 minutes or more. Even the Crossroads to Downtown Bellevue time of 9 mins is faster than the B Line which is can get point to point in 15 minutes and usually takes around 20.

In simpler terms it doesn’t matter how much faster the buses go (in a potential Sammamish BRT system) because they have to go around the lake. Even against driving the gondola is faster between Sammamish and Crossroads Mall and time competitive to Downtown Bellevue and probably faster if there’s traffic on I-405.

The last wonderful thing about gondolas is they are remarkably cost effective. The Peak 2 Peak Gondola was only $57 Million. Of course the Sammamish Gondola would be on a different scale entirely,  it would be more than twice as long, feature an intermediate station and would have to account for land acquisition costs for towers (likely over a dozen of them), air rights over property owners (including wealthy lakeside homeowners) and lawsuits from people who don’t like the idea of a gondola going over their (previously) private suburban houses.

This project would cheap enough to be done as a joint effort by the cities of Bellevue and Sammamish and cost efficient enough to be done by Sound Transit. The strengths of gondolas makes them ideal for projects that no other kind of transit can handle.

Special thanks to gondola expert enthusiast  and all around good guy Matt Gangemi for his help in writing this.