In recent weeks, Sound Transit has released a series of "corridor studies", the latest step in developing the future transit roadmap for the region. The studies inform both the Long Range Plan (all the projects that are likely to be developed over the next few decades), and a shorter list of priority projects that may go to the voters in 2016. We now know a lot more about where Sound Transit’s planning is going.
Of all the options serving Kirkland, two are in the forefront as contenders for the 2016 ballot package. Both are bus-based; one on I-405, the other on the former Eastside Rail Corridor with service to Bellevue and across the 520 bridge to UW.
I-405 BUS RAPID TRANSIT
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on I-405 will be built out over time. It’s an expansion of existing express services on I-405, but with greater frequency and infrastructure improvements to improve travel times and reliability. Buses will run in the HOT lanes that are under construction today, stopping only at freeway stations and providing fast travel times up and down the 405. As the 405 becomes increasingly congested, this will be an appealing service for many.
The City hopes I-405 BRT could drive development in the Totem Lake Business Center. They’ll be disappointed. It’s a valuable service for the region generally, but only marginally relevant to Kirkland. The only Kirkland station served will be at the Totem Lake Freeway station at 128th St. The Totem Lake transit center will not be served. I-405 BRT won’t even get you from Totem Lake to downtown Kirkland. What it delivers is an improved version of today’s infrequent express bus from Totem Lake to Bellevue; a step forward, but not an economic game changer.
(Sound Transit did study a stop at 85th St NE. But they are almost certain to reject it. It’s very costly because it would require a complete rebuilding of the 85th St overpasses to create the center ramps they want. And it wouldn’t attract riders because it’s still another bus connection away from anywhere most bus riders want to go).
BUS RAPID TRANSIT ON THE CROSS-KIRKLAND CORRIDOR
For transit service that is useful to Kirkland residents and drives economic development at Totem Lake and elsewhere, the only realistic option is the Cross-Kirkland Corridor. It will be bus, not rail. On a dedicated busway, bus is as fast as rail, and much cheaper. The financials for service along the entire Renton-Woodinville corridor are poor, so we won’t see transit on the entire corridor. But they are much for the central portion between Bellevue and Kirkland, and between UW and Kirkland.
In Totem Lake, bus service on the CKC would serve the Transit Center. This is centrally located between Evergreen Hospital and Totem Lake Malls (hopefully to be redeveloped in the near future). The proposed route would access the Corridor off 124th St, allowing better neighborhood access than a freeway service. After that, the corridor gets you to downtown Kirkland in a few minutes, and onwards to Houghton and the South Kirkland Park and Ride. Beyond this point, there are dedicated transit lanes across the 520 to Montlake. Service could also continue along the rail corridor to Bellevue. It would meet East Link at Hospital Station in Bellevue (near Overlake Hospital), continue to the Bellevue transit center in the heart of downtown, and perhaps continue to Issaquah.
It’s easy to see why this is a superior solution for Kirkland. It gets the greatest number of people in Kirkland to most of the places they want to go. Even today's Metro buses could run faster and more reliably if they aren't struggling up State St or 108th Ave NE in traffic. Bus service from almost anywhere in Kirkland to neighboring cities would be faster if it could use the Corridor for part of its journey. A Metro bus to Kingsgate or Juanita could bypass much of today's traffic delays, only running in mixed lanes for the last mile or two.
Is it inevitable? Not yet. It’s a financially attractive way to build quality transit, but the political part of the process is still ahead. Every city in the region has a wish-list. Some, like Issaquah, are aggressively planning more transit-oriented downtowns and lobbying hard for Sound Transit rail service. Kirkland needs to better engage with the process, and advocate for transit on the CKC.
The City does need to think carefully about how to make the service work well. The Corridor is just far enough from downtown that a station on the corridor is marginally walkable. It may make sense to have a short detour off the corridor to a more central station for downtown. But the buses can't sit in traffic. That means priority for buses at traffic signals, and exclusive lanes where there is space.
In the near future, downtown will grow eastwards. A redeveloped Park Place alone will be a larger employment center than the traditional downtown, and much closer to the Corridor. That gets most future development closer to better transit than we have today. Before that area fills up with expensive new development, the City should think carefully about where transit will fit, and plan accordingly.