Halfway to 24/7 HOV lanes Seattle to Bellevue

By guest blogger Noel Brady

If you ride a bus, a carpool or a vanpool across Lake Washington, you probably know how the express lanes can take the edge off a tough commute. But if they’re reversible express lanes, just make sure your commuting the express direction.

Take the I-90 Express Lanes in the center roadway between Seattle and Bellevue for example. If you live on the Eastside of King County and work a regular 9-5 in Seattle, you’re golden. If you go the other way, well, not so much.

We’re phasing out go-with-the-flow reversible express lanes on I-90 and replacing them with full-time HOV lanes in both directions for around-the-clock express trips for carpools and buses in either direction, save for the unexpected crash or clog. Later this month, a new eastbound HOV lane will open from 80th Avenue Southeast to Bellevue Way, and the second phase of the I-90 Two-Way Transit and HOV Operations project will be complete.

In 1990, a year after WSDOT completed westbound I-90’s Homer Hadley Bridge and the new express lanes, traffic levels eastbound and westbound differed greatly depending on the time of day. Typically traffic was nearly 50 percent heavier headed to Seattle in the morning and back to the Eastside in the evening. Today there’s more traffic, rush hours last about an hour longer and the difference between the number of vehicles heading east and west is relatively minimal. On average about 135,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day in either direction of the mainline and about 15,000 in the express lanes.

When the second phase of the project finishes later this month, lawmakers and transportation officials, including state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond, will cut a ribbon to reopen 80th Avenue Southeast freeway ramp on Mercer Island. After a four-day ramp closure for realignment, the ramp’s big reveal will be direct-access to a new HOV lane on eastbound I-90 mainline. Carpools and buses will have access into the center express lanes before the East Channel Bridge for continued, smooth HOV-only traffic to Bellevue Way and I-405.

Afterward, commuters will enjoy an I-90 generally clear of barriers and hardhats as our engineers work in the office on final design for the project’s third and final stage, which will start construction next year on new HOV lanes in both directions between 80th Avenue Southeast and Seattle.

As soon as the final stage is finished and the I-90 project is complete, Sound Transit will take the reins of the center express lanes and close them to traffic forever to begin building East Link light rail. By 2023 light rail will be an added travel option between Seattle and the Eastside and I-90 will begin to carry more people more efficiently and with less greenhouse gas emissions than ever before.

According to its final environmental impact statement, East Link will be equipped to carry as many as 800 people in each four-car train. It would give the center roadway a peak-hour capacity of up to 24,000 people per hour, about the same as a busy freeway with seven to 10 lanes of traffic. And it more than doubles I-90’s existing capacity while preserving existing lane space for freight trucks, passenger vehicles, carpools and buses.