The Bellevue business community gathered on Tuesday, Feb. 26, to hear word from Sound Transit and Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) officials regarding projects along the Interstate 405 corridor.
The Bellevue Downtown Association’s (BDA) first monthly breakfast series of 2019 hosted four transportation officials, two from Sound Transit and two from WSDOT. The BDA breakfast series focuses on an individual issue at each event and has previously covered homelessness, tourism, real estate and the state of the city.
The presentations and subsequent panel discussion focused heavily on current and future projects, toll lane performance, bus rapid transit and the I-405 master plan.
“We talk about all the population increase out in the region that we’ve been enjoying over the past three years,” said Ed Barry, Tolling Division director at WSDOT.
From April 2017 to April 2018, 52,000 new residents moved into King and Snohomish counties, according to WSDOT’s numbers.
“So what does that mean?” Barry asked the breakfast attendees. “That means as everybody in here has probably seen, a lot higher traffic volumes and a lot more stress on 405 and our infrastructure out there.”
One of WSDOT’s biggest priorities is keeping current and future projects on schedule. Currently, the main focus of that priority is securing funding for construction and unfunded projects.
“Sound transit plans to start their operations for bus rapid transit here within the corridor [in the middle of 2024],” said Kim Henry, the WSDOT I-405 and state Route 167 Project director. “So we are trying to get all our projects lined up to be complete by that timeframe, so we have the infrastructure in place to really support bus rapid transit.”
Relevant to Bellevue, WSDOT is working to complete the express toll lanes from Renton to Bellevue, increased capacity from the 167 interchange up to downtown Bellevue, and two projects in Kirkland to increase access to I-405 and support bus rapid transit.
Bus rapid transit is essentially a bus system with the speed of a light rail system. It is faster than a conventional bus system by using fewer stops, higher speeds, off-vehicle fare collection, dedicated lanes and priority at traffic signals. The system is typically used as an alternative for a light rail for its flexibility and lower cost.
Henry said WSDOT is only waiting for the state Legislature to fully authorize the express toll lane project before beginning the construction phase. He added that if the projects are delayed, it has a cascading effect that will impact Sound Transit and other local agencies’ projects.
WSDOT projects that the improvements along with bus rapid transit will vastly improve traffic congestion along I-405 by 2025.
Barry mentioned the department has seen not only success with the toll lanes in reducing travel times, but a wider approval over time. According to surveys taken by a cross section of toll lane users and non-users, approval was at about 40 percent in 2013, dipped down to about 20 percent in 2016, a year after the lanes opened, and has since increased to 60 percent as of 2017. Barry added express toll lane usage is up by about 42 percent since they first opened.
Transit officials also speculated on the future role of technology in transportation throughout the region.
Paul Cornish, Sound Transit’s director of bus rapid transit, said the agency is constantly considering the future of autonomous vehicles and the role they’ll play. He emphasized that Sound Transit wants to future proof all the projects that are currently in development not only for 2024, when many will be completed, but for a dozen years afterwards.
Henry echoed this statement while Barry added the future role smartphones could play in toll lanes. Barry speculated about a potential tolling app and an easier way to detect and declare High Occupancy Vehicle status with riders signing into the app.
“As we continue to think about how we do everything, that is certainly part of our thinking in the background, how these things are developing and how we’re going to be accommodating [autonomous vehicles,]” Henry said.