I-405 tolls are shaving several minutes off bus riders’ commutes

Tolls have helped buses traveling I-405 shave some time off their routes, a key goal to help make what transit is available more reliable and attractive to commuters.

About 4,200 people get on buses traveling I-405 each weekday. During the morning commute, their rides are from 5 to 7 minutes shorter, on average, than they were a year ago, and 3 to 5 minutes faster during the evening commute back north.

Some trips saw even more dramatic improvement, by as much as 16 minutes.

“Our buses are going faster, there’s no doubt,” said Martin Munguia, a spokesman for Community Transit, which operates the two Sound Transit routes on I-405.

Still, buses are only going faster in the toll lanes.

“The problem comes when they have to exit and get into the general purpose lanes — and people really don’t like to let a bus in front of them,” Munguia said.

As soon as buses have to slog over that congestion, nearly all the time they’ve spent zooming through the toll lane disappears in a brakelight-lit haze.

Commuters driving alone or in a carpool report similar angst when they have to get out of the toll lanes to reach their exits, which are sometimes still a mile or more off.

Folks at the Washington State Department of Transportation encourage drivers to stay in the toll lanes and exit at a direct-access ramp instead. Even if it means backtracking, it could save time.

“The direct access ramps in Bellevue and Totem Lake still are not as popular an option as merging exits for Snohomish County drivers. Many drivers may still be unaware of the benefits of this option,” said Ethan Bergerson, a spokesman.

The direct-access ramps, which are left-hand exits, work great for buses, too, agreed Munguia. The problem is, there need to be more — particularly for buses tied to fixed routes, where the direct-access ramps might be miles out of the way.

“Of course, that costs a lot of money,” Munguia conceded.

And that’s only one reason more direct access won’t come any time soon.

WSDOT’s priority projects for I-405 include direct ramps that will connect the express lanes with the HOV lanes on Highway 520, Highway 522 and I-90.

Beyond that, the long-term master plan for I-405 includes rebuilding the Highway 527 interchange, which would include direct-access ramps.

But like other big-ticket transportation projects in Snohomish County, there’s not even a guess for when that might happen.

“We understand the need for further improvements in the north end of the corridor beyond our priority projects. Once we complete the projects on the list, we will identify additional priorities which may include this project,” said Amy Danberg, a WSDOT spokeswoman.

In the meantime, bus-only shoulder lanes on two sections of southbound I-405 also aim to help transit between exits during the morning rush.

In minutes, the benefit of the toll lanes to transit is roughly equivalent to what drivers in the general purpose lanes have seen in the 17-mile corridor where toll lanes run, from Lynnwood to Bellevue. State figures show traffic in the southbound regular lanes moving 7 minutes faster than they were in 2014, and 1 minute faster northbound, thanks in large part to the further expansion of the interstate south of the county line. Drivers who use the toll lanes for the full 17 miles save an average of 14 minutes.

State figures only include time spent on I-405.

Transit figures cover the full length of routes, including time spent off I-405. Route 535 includes a pit stop at the University of Washington Bothell, for example. Route 532 travels a big chunk of I-5.

Time savings varied widely between individual trips on the two routes. A handful of bus trips saw no improvement post-tolling, while others saw double-digit gains. Several factors feed travel times, including time spent loading and unloading passengers.

An example of a bright spot was the Route 532 bus leaving Everett Station at 7:05 a.m., which reached its last stop in Bellevue 68 minutes later, on average, during October and November 2015. It was a 14-minute improvement over the average travel time a year earlier, even with an increase in ridership.

Just two Sound Transit routes serve Snohomish County on I-405. There are twice the number of routes and trips serving Snohomish County on I-5.

Still, the time savings on I-405 “is significant,” Munguia said.

And not just for the commuters who step on board.

“When you consider that Routes 532 and 535 have about 20 trips per day in each direction, that would add up to a tangible cost saving in operations over the course of a year,” Munguia added.

Better bus rides

Buses on two Sound Transit routes that serve Snohomish County on I-405 reach their destinations faster since tolling began — on average, from 3 minutes to 7 minutes faster than before. Here are the top trips for improvement:

Southbound

1. ST 532 leaving Everett Station at 6:15 a.m. (16 minutes)

2. ST 535 leaving Lynnwood Transit Center at 8:18 a.m. (15 minutes)

3. ST 532 leaving Everett at 7:05 a.m. (14 minutes)

Northbound

1. ST 532 leaving NE 10th and 102nd NE in Bellevue at 4:11 p.m. (16 minutes)

2. ST 532 leaving Bellevue at 3:41 p.m. (10 minutes)

3 (tie). ST 532 leaving Bellevue at 4:21 or 4:31 p.m. (8 minutes)

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