Work has begun on SR 522 BRT, with the first BAT lanes in Bothell coming online in late 2020, and Sound Transit’s Stride BRT service opening in 2024. Although phase 1 design recently concluded and the project is now entering the Conceptual Engineering and Environmental process, planners continue to evaluate how to serve the low-ridership Woodinville segment.
The BRT extends from the Shoreline Link rail station along NE 145th where Sound Transit will add bus queue bypasses and signal priority for transit at key intersections. On SR 522, the patchwork of existing BAT (business access & transit) lanes will be filled in to create an uninterrupted lane for transit from 145th to Bothell. In Bothell, the BRT is likely to operate on downtown streets, serving UW Bothell and connecting to I-405 BRT at NE 195th St.
Beyond that, there is a 3.5-mile segment to the Woodinville Park & Ride where the planned service is more basic. The ST3 plan does not fund any capital improvements east of I-405 and the buses operate in general purpose freeway lanes on I-405 and SR 522. The 10-minute headways west of I-405 drop to every 20 minutes into Woodinville.
As Sound Transit steps up planning for I-405 BRT, WSDOT is preparing to extend managed HOT lanes from Bellevue south to Renton. Meanwhile, a political consensus in favor of tolling has solidified. After an unsteady start, managed lanes have grown more popular with the public. Eastside cities are recognizing both the benefits in managing traffic and the need for toll revenue to fund future capacity expansion. Eastside cities have joined with transit agencies and local employers to lobby for continued tolling and an expansion of toll lanes at the north end.
The first HOT lanes (high-occupancy toll) in the region opened on SR 167 in 2008. In 2015, another 15 miles of HOT lanes opened on I-405 between Bellevue and Lynnwood. Throughput on the lanes is maximized with a combination of free HOV-3 and tolling for other vehicles. The former HOV-2 lanes were badly congested as too many vehicles qualified to use the lane, but HOV-3 alone would leave the lanes under-used. Tolling balances traffic by allowing just enough other cars into the HOT lane so it is used efficiently, but not overwhelmed. Raising the HOV limit to three occupants at peak hours, however, did make the lanes unpopular with former two-person carpoolers.
In Renton, construction is underway on HOV-to-HOV ramps between I-405 and SR 167. Those will open for traffic in 2019, enabling higher occupancy vehicles to avoid the weave across several lanes of general purpose traffic. Construction then begins on widening I-405 to create two HOT lanes in each direction between Bellevue and SR 167. A fifth of the $1.175 billion cost is funded from future tolls. Completion of the Bellevue-Renton HOT lanes in 2024 will enable Sound Transit to operate BRT on this corridor.
Between Bothell and Lynnwood, the highway narrows to just one HOT lane and two general purpose lanes in each direction. Demand for the HOT lanes is so high that they often fail to clear even with tolls at the statutory maximum of $10. Toll revenues funded a shoulder lane between SR 527 and I-5 that opened in April 2017. That significantly improved operations in the northbound direction, increasing vehicle throughput in the general-purpose lanes and reducing toll rates. The cost was a low $11 million. Future planned improvements in the I-405 Master Plan have higher price tags and currently lack state funding, but could be paid for by future tolling.
It is against this background that the continued operation of managed lanes is being debated. All the major Eastside cities, the transit agencies on the corridor, and many large employers, have joined in lobbying the Legislature. They seek continued tolling along the corridor and an expansion of the HOT lanes north of Bothell. Two recent joint letters lay out the interests of local stakeholders.
After Sound Transit released the draft system plan in March, some Eastside cities were unhappy it included a smaller investment in I-405 BRT than they had sought. Bellevue and Renton pushed for something closer to the “intensive capital” BRT with more parking and more stations using express toll lanes.
Some Eastside cities penned a joint letter, describing the proposal as comparable to ST Express service with improved headways, and demanding a much larger investment with more inline stops to create a BRT that is “the equivalent of light rail on rubber tires”. The attempt to forge a coalition of the I-405 corridor cities fell flat. Several East and South King cities did not sign. Some who signed were small cities that do not border I-405. None of the Snohomish County cities participated.
The amended system plan made some concessions. Sound Transit had agreed in March to relocate Renton’s downtown transit center to a more freeway-accessible location with 700 parking stalls. Renton pushed to expand the new South Renton transit center to accommodate 2,000 cars, and to add a second BRT stop at NE 44th St with parking for another 700. While the Board agreed only to 200 parking stalls in a surface lot at NE 44th St, the added center-line direct access facility adds $170 million to the cost of the BRT. An even more remote station with expanded parking at SE 112th in Bellevue was not included. Kirkland, taking a different approach, negotiated for more TOD in Kingsgate, reducing by 200 the planned parking expansion there.
I-405 BRT had lots of institutional momentum. The master plan for I-405, approved in 2002, envisions a BRT line with inline stations along I-405. To this end, Sound Transit has built transit centers and center ramps to the HOV lanes. WSDoT has created the express toll lanes north of Bellevue where buses could move reliably. With WSDoT now funded to extend the express lanes to the south, many observers expected a large investment in BRT on the corridor in ST3.
The plan ran up against uncomfortably low ridership numbers. Modelling suggests only 12,000 riders in 2040, and that the ridership isn’t increased at higher investment levels. A pared-down BRT, much of which runs in general traffic lanes, attracts as many riders as the ‘Cadillac’ version.
Recognizing that the proposal for higher investment levels didn’t stand up to close scrutiny, the Sound Transit Board in March advanced a draft system plan with just $735 million in capital investments, less than any of the options considered in the 2014 corridor studies. The low capital plan leveraged existing highway infrastructure with better and more frequent buses. Where center stations already exist, the BRT would run in the ETL lanes. Elsewhere, buses would run in general purpose lanes (or on the shoulder in a few locations north of Bothell).
This Wednesday, February 17, the Washington State Transportation Commission will discuss toll rate options for several tolled highways in the Puget Sound. Among the changes that will be discussed are the recent calls from legislators to end tolling on I-405 on evenings, weekends, and holidays.
If you are in Olympia on Wednesday, you will have an opportunity to comment in person. Discussion of I-405 operations is scheduled for 3PM, with a public comment period at 4.45PM. As usual, the anti-tolling campaign is expected to show. Because they show up, they will appear to ‘represent’ the public unless countered.
Express toll lanes on I-405 have been an undoubted boon for transit users with faster and more reliable travel times. Notwithstanding the concerted campaign against the lanes, the ETL also helped general purpose traffic to move more quickly and more efficiently through the corridor. Sound Transit’s plans for I-405 BRT can not deliver promised results unless speed and reliability are maintained in the HOT lanes at all times that transit is operating.
Bending to political pressure, some legislators have asked to eliminate tolls after 7pm, on weekends and on holidays. Governor Inslee joined in this request at a press conference this afternoon. WSTC is responsible for approving such changes. Their first opportunity to consider the request is at Wednesday’s meeting. Whether or not WSTC accedes to this request, it is unlikely to be the last occasion anti-tolling advocates flex their muscles to reduce the effectiveness of the ETL.
At a minimum, WSTC must carefully review the effect on transit reliability of changing lane operations. Governor Inslee today acknowledged the benefits of tolling to transit users on I-405. Opening the express lanes toll-free to SOVs at “off-peak” times risks having transit and HOV users stuck in traffic. There is traffic after 7pm too. The revenue reduction would also reduce WSDOT’s capacity to invest further in the HOT lanes.
This summary of ST3 feedback from East King County (including North King other than Seattle) is the fifth in a series of ST3 feedback summaries. See our previous coverage of Pierce County, Seattle, South King County, and Snohomish County. A future installment will look at other Stakeholder Organizations.
The Eastside’s ST3 input is well coordinated. As happened last July, several Eastside cities signed a joint letter describing shared goals. Cities along the SR 522 corridor also submitted their own joint letter endorsing BRT on SR 522 and NE 145th St. Read together with the cities own letters, there’s an impressive consensus about what an Eastside ST3 package needs to look like.
Joint Letter of the Eastside Cities
The Eastside cities introduce their priorities by noting how they are “reshaping our regional growth centers and downtowns into dense, mixed-use, urban centers that need frequent and reliable transit service to sustain economic growth and viability. ST3 has the potential to create transit connections within the Eastside, and provide connections between the Eastside and the rest of the region”. The letter goes on to remind the Board that “the Eastside will be making a significant tax investment into the package” and looks forward to seeing commensurate investments back into the Eastside.
The Eastside’s five priorities in ST3 are:
E-01: Completing the East Link spine to Downtown Redmond. This is so uncontroversial that no explanation was apparently necessary.
E-02: Fully implement Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on I-405, from Lynnwood to SeaTac. A version of I-405 BRT between the low and intensive capital versions is recommended. The scope needs to “provide sufficient access for the line to operate as an efficient BRT facility”. That means an inline station at NE 85th Street in Kirkland, direct access to Tukwila Sounder Station, at least one additional location south of I-90, and a dedicated transitway with inline flyer stops. The latter implies a significant investment in South Snohomish County where the BRT would otherwise run in mixed traffic north of SR 522.
E-03: Light rail from Totem Lake to Issaquah via Bellevue. In an acknowledgment that BRT may have advantages in Kirkland, the joint letter caveats that “this project must provide flexibility and be scalable to meet ridership demand and the needs of the communities served”.
E-04: A new transit center in Renton at Rainier Ave S and S Grady Way. This project would replace the downtown transit center.
N-09 and N-10: BRT on 145th Street and SR 522 to connect with North Link.
[UPDATE: The original post failed to note that suggested changes to tolling prices are subject to approval by the Washington State Transportation Commission. The WSTC has not yet met to consider the most recent proposal from the House Democrats].
Under political pressure from Republicans in the Legislature, WSDOT is paring back the express toll lanes on I-405. If approved by the WSTC, the lanes would be open The lanes will be open to all drivers without tolls on evenings and weekends.
In the Senate, SB 6152 passed out of committee on Wednesday. The bill emphasizes that the imposition of tolls is authorized for a two-year period only. The bill would prohibit tolls between 7pm and 5am, on weekends, and on all federal and state holidays. The bill even micromanages lane access, requiring that WSDOT continue to expand the length of the access and exit points to the express toll lanes. Earlier language that would have converted one of the ETL lanes between Bellevue and Bothell to a general purpose lane was dropped.
In the House, companion bill HB 2312 has not gotten out of committee (the deadline is Tuesday). However, House Democrats wrote WSDOT Tuesday evening requesting several of the changes in the Senate Bill. The changes were agreed with WSDOT. WSDOT will should “eliminate tolls during evening non-peak hours, weekends, and holidays, to the extent that such a change will improve commuters’ experience on I-405” (thereby giving WSDOT some flexibility in setting hours of operation). The letter also suggests a long list of operational changes. Most notably, WSDOT is to consider “re-instating” a general purpose lane on NB I-405 between SR 520 and NE 70th St, where an exit lane was converted to general purpose use to make room for the ETL. WSDOT is also to modify the highway north of SR 522 to allow shoulder-running (the implications for ST and CT buses that already run on the shoulder here are unclear). The timing of the changes depends on Federal Highway Administration approval, but WSDOT is to report to the Legislature within six months on the impacts.
The City of Renton is proposing to relocate its transit center as part of ST3. The new center would be located at Rainier Avenue South and Grady Way, just north of the intersection of I-405 and SR 167. It would replace a smaller downtown transit center, adding much more parking and easing access for park-and-ride commuters from the south and east. However, it is likely to eventually reduce service for Renton’s downtown and developing North Renton neighborhoods.
The new center would be more accessible for buses or drivers approaching from SR 167, and could include 1,500-2,000 parking stalls, potentially the largest transit parking facility in King County (Eastgate has 1,614 stalls). It would be funded, in part, by giving up a deferred ST2 project to build HOV ramps from N 8th St. The property is a disused former auto dealership, and is adjacent to an existing 370-stall Metro park-and-ride. Renton officials perceive potential for transit-oriented development, though that would require a far-reaching overhaul of the area’s current development pattern.
Commuters who drive to buses would prefer a transit facility closer to highways and with more available parking. The current center is perceived as having an adverse effect on downtown. Buses and drivers to the transit center parking add to downtown traffic (Metro leases 150 stalls in a city-owned structure). When the downtown transit center was opened in 2000, the hope was that it would draw commuters to downtown businesses, but few stay long in the area. Now Renton is studying a festival street on S 3rd St, and restoring two-way traffic on S 2nd and S 3rd, making them arguably less suited to commuter bus service.
The downtown transit center is served by two ST Express routes (560, 566), Rapid Ride F, and a dozen other Metro routes. How many of those routes would continue to serve that area? Renton believes it can maintain local Metro service through downtown, but would prefer the primary location for transfers be elsewhere. It’s unlikely Metro or Sound Transit would wish to serve downtown so intensively once the transit center is relocated. Indeed, Metro opposed locating a transit center in downtown when it was first built, not wanting to have buses navigating downtown streets. Many commuters who would rely on the new transit center will view downtown Renton as a detour and will prefer their buses get on the highway as promptly as possible.
Routing buses through downtown Renton supports service to growing mixed use neighborhoods in North Renton such as The Landing. Just last week, construction started on Southport, a large new office complex near Boeing and The Landing. The N 8th St HOV access project was supposed to ease their access from The Landing to I-405. With an expanded transit center south of downtown and easy highway access there, it’s likely that future service will skip downtown and the growing northern neighborhoods.
There has long been a regional consensus that I-405 Bus Rapid Transit would be a part of the ST3 program. But that general agreement has hidden a fuzziness about the form it would take. The December 4 workshop saw a range of options presented. The studies make a compelling case for a low-cost version of I-405 BRT, but complicate the case for doing much more. The eye-popping conclusion is that a range of investment levels between $340 million and $2.3 billion all produce the same ridership.
Staff presented “low capital” and “intensive capital” representative models. In between are a long list of a la carte options. There are two alternatives for a southern terminus; one at Angle Lake, the other at Burien TC. The “low capital” model leans heavily on existing infrastructure, and is less ambitious than any of the options examined in the previous set of studies in 2014.
Low Capital BRT
Staff analysis helpfully breaks out cost and performance by segment. Segment A, Lynnwood TC to Bellevue TC, is the most productive with up to 10,000 riders, about 60% of all the ridership on the BRT. 10 of the 19 miles are served via general purpose lanes on I-5 and I-405 (other than limited shoulder-running southbound on I-405). Only the portion between Brickyard and Bellevue can be served via HOT lanes. Segment B, Bellevue to Renton, runs entirely in HOT lanes, but achieves fewer than 1,500 riders. That would include a deferred project to build HOV direct access ramps at N 8th St in Renton.
Beyond Renton, there is little new investment. Segment C, Renton to Tukwila International Boulevard Link Station, would run in HOT lanes on I-405 and general purpose lanes on SR 518, achieving a respectable 3,500 riders with little cost other than vehicles. From TIBS, the service could continue to Angle Lake via BAT lanes on SR 99 (Segment D1), or to Burien Transit Center via general purpose lanes on SR 518 (Segment D2).
The total capital cost under $350 million is modest for the ridership, mostly because the highway infrastructure is largely existing or funded through WSDOT. 28% of the cost is for parking.
Intensive Capital BRT
The ‘intensive capital’ option adds several stations and upgrades others. It eliminates much of the interaction with general purpose lanes via added ramps in the north and BAT lanes in the south.
Kirkland residents and workers, and anyone else interested in the future of mobility in Kirkland, should attend the City of Kirkland’s ST3 open house tomorrow night (Thursday, Nov. 19). The open house is at the Kirkland Performance Center in downtown Kirkland, one short block from Kirkland Transit Center, from 6:30 to 9:00 p.m. Frequent Metro bus routes 234/235, 245, and 255, as well as other routes 236, 238, 248, and 540, all serve the location, with one-seat service from throughout the north Eastside as well as downtown Seattle.
Attending this meeting is critical because the city of Kirkland needs to hear support for rapid transit service along the Eastside Rail Corridor (ERC) between Bellevue and Totem Lake, which is the only realistic option for fast and frequent transit that will serve Kirkland communities. Full background below the jump.
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.
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.