Shoulder-driving could ease the morning I-5 bus commute

Sound Transit and the state propose reconfiguring southbound lanes from Lynnwood to Mountlake Terrace.

LYNNWOOD — Morning bus commuters could get some help traveling one of the area’s most snarled stretches of freeway within a year, through the combined efforts of area transit agencies.

With a paved and reconfigured I-5 shoulder between Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace, southbound bus riders could save one to five minutes regularly — and more during the worst traffic jams. Upgrades on the left-hand shoulder would link transit centers in the two cities, a distance of about 1.5 miles.

The small and relatively cheap upgrade could signal more shoulder-driving projects to come.

“We’re hoping it would be ready by the end of 2018,” said Rachelle Cunningham, a spokeswoman for Sound Transit.

The route would open between 6 and 9 a.m. weekdays only. Construction is expected to cost up to $280,000 for paving, signs, paint and drainage systems. Bids are expected to go out early next year.

No equivalent project is in the works along the northbound lanes, at least for now.

If the bus-on-shoulder project sounds familiar, it should.

The Washington State Department of Transportation sought bidders for the same work this spring, without luck. Agency officials chalked up the lack of interest to the regional economic boom. Construction companies already have their hands full with larger projects.

“When there’s so much work going on, it’s hard to attract anyone,” said Mark Leth, an assistant regional DOT administrator.

State officials have been working with Community Transit for a couple of years to identify the most promising upgrades for shoulder driving.

“This one had always looked like the lowest-hanging fruit for the highest benefit,” Leth said. “This one set up really nicely in that it’s between two direct access ramps. It’s a really clean connection.”

The state is now teaming up with Sound Transit to take another shot at seeing it through. The regional transit agency is enjoying a windfall from the $54 billion ST3 package that voters passed last year to expand light-rail and bus networks.

As part of its expansion, the agency expects to spend more than $100 million to open up more freeway and highway shoulders to buses. A committee of the Sound Transit Board of Directors earlier this month authorized a $412,000 study to identify the best locations in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties. Findings are expected in about a year.

Bus-on-shoulder programs are among the earliest projects envisioned under ST3. They would come on line in 2024, a dozen years before light rail is scheduled to reach Everett and north Lynnwood.

The state opened up stretches of the I-405 shoulder to buses two years ago, when it unveiled the express toll lanes. Buses can use the shoulder between Highway 527 and NE 195th Street, also between Highway 522 and NE 160th Street.

State DOT policy limits buses to a maximum speed of 35 mph on the shoulders.

The south Snohomish County project will be the first bus-on-shoulder program on the left side of the freeway.

I-5 traffic has been worsening from Seattle to Everett. Commuters now have to plan for a 90-minute trip to reliably make it to work on time. That’s only the time it takes to go down the freeway.

In all, congestion on the central Puget Sound region’s major roads is up by more than 22 percent over the past two years, according to the state’s most recent Corridor Capacity Report.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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