Short-term fixes could get buses moving faster

Commuters who stand in the aisle of a Community Transit bus for as long as 80 minutes to get to their jobs in Seattle are proof enough that buses are not immune to the region’s traffic woes.

Travel times in the high-occupancy vehicle lanes on I-5 between Everett and Seattle have gone up 20 minutes in the past year. Buses rely on those lanes as much as carpoolers. In 2014, 25 percent of Community Transit’s I-5 routes were late.

“We are getting eaten alive,” said Carol Thompson, service development manager for Community Transit, at a May 14 meeting of the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Transportation Policy Board.

Community Transit threw out the plea for help to the Washington State Department of Transportation. And the two agencies are now exploring three short-term fixes that could help improve bus travel times — perhaps even in time for the fall congestion season.

1. Double white lines

The state is considering adding double-white lines that prohibit merging between the high-occupancy vehicle lane and general purpose lanes in certain areas. Spots between the Ash Way Park and Ride and the Mountlake Terrace Freeway Station on southbound I-5 are being eyed first.

2. Mountlake Terrace shortcut

Community Transit is looking at whether the Mountlake Terrace Freeway Station could be used for buses as a kind of “queue jump” when the HOV lane becomes significantly congested. By driving through the freeway station, buses on their way to Seattle could bypass up to a mile of bumper-to-bumper cars and save up to 5 to 10 minutes.

3. Driving on the shoulder

This is the biggest possible change, and a source of some excitement for transportation geeks. Allowing buses to drive on highway shoulders generally is not allowed, but Minnesota has had success. That state’s program now includes nearly 300 miles of bus-only shoulder lanes that bus drivers can opt to use whenever main-line traffic dips below 35 mph — with plans to add more of the lanes in 2016.

There would be a lot of details and permissions to hash out on this one, but it’s not unprecedented.

The right-hand shoulder on the eastbound U.S. 2 trestle is open to traffic during the 3-7 p.m. weekday commute, for example.

The state also is adding a new shoulder area for buses on I-405 south of Highway 522 as part of its tolling project. The shoulder lane will allow transit to safely go up the hill without slowing traffic. A similar bus-only shoulder access lane is planned for south of 228th Street SW.

For I-5, the state is eyeing a pilot project that could run from just north of the 196th Street overpass to the Mountlake Terrace Freeway Station. It would use the left-hand shoulder, adjacent to the HOV lane. The 10-foot shoulder is wide enough in that stretch to consider the bus-only option.

“It’d be a quick-hit action,” said Mark Leth, assistant regional administrator for operations for WSDOT’s Northwest Region, at last week’s meeting.

There would be some costs involved, including signage, striping, increased maintenance and enforcement, public education and driver training.

In Minnesota, signage and striping alone for a shoulder project costs up to $2,500 per mile.

Leth also cautioned that, even if the I-5 pilot does move forward, using shoulders isn’t a solution everywhere.

In addition to being sufficiently wide to fit a bus, some areas may not be in good enough condition to use even at slow speeds.

Making transit attractive

In an interview, Thompson said that all three ideas are still on the drawing board. More detailed plans will be hashed out over the summer, when traffic is expected to make its seasonal dip.

She said both agencies hope to make some changes by fall “because that’s when things are the worst.”

Separately, Community Transit in June will add two commuter trips and will continue to operate 30 grant-funded commuter trips after their grants run out later this year. It also will nearly double its fleet of higher-capacity double-decker buses by year’s end.

“One of our big hopes is that it also makes transit more attractive … than sitting in traffic for 90 minutes,” said Martin Munguia, a spokesman for Community Transit.

Community Transit is just once piece of the I-5 puzzle, and perhaps won’t be in the future.

Sound Transit recently approved a route that will take Link light rail to Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace by 2023.

When that’s in place, Community Transit may bow out of the commute. “Things could change — never say never — but that’s our expectation at this point,” Thompson told committee members.

The Puget Sound Regional Council plans a transit summit, from 12-2 p.m. June 11 at 1011 Western Ave., Suite 500, Seattle.

The meeting is expected to look at emerging issues in transit integration, and how those ideas can be taken off the paper and put on the road.

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