By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
All week long, since the return of a bus lane to northbound Highway 99 north of the West Seattle Bridge, it’s generated complaints, from bus riders (whose buses can’t get to it without slogging through the backed-up exit to 99) as well as drivers. Not just in WSB comments – also for transportation agencies and elected officials.
So we set out to find out, among other things, who’s monitoring its effects.
First big question: Who’s responsible for the decision and its effects?
Highway 99 is a sort of hybrid – though it’s a state highway, the city is involved with some aspects of its operation, such as police response. We started our inquiry with WSDOT’s Laura Newborn. She told us that the decision to restore the bus lane – first mentioned last month – was a joint city (SDOT), state (WSDOT), and county (Metro) decision. She forwarded SDOT’s official statement:
SDOT worked with WSDOT to restore this bus lane in support of King County Metro, who is using the lane for 12 bus routes carrying 30,000 people into downtown Seattle. The lane was originally installed to help provide transit reliability as WSDOT worked to demolish the Alaskan Way viaduct and construct the new tunnel. During this period of transition as travelers adjust to the newly reinstalled bus lane, we encourage travelers to plan for extra time, shift the hours they commute, and avoid driving alone downtown if possible. With the installation of this bus lane, taking the bus is a great transportation option from West Seattle.
In the Transportation Operations Center (TOC), we’ve been monitoring traffic on Northbound SR 99 and on the West Seattle Bridge. Although the recent change in weather and the time it takes for drivers to readjust to the merge may play a part, we are seeing increased congestion at the merge onto Northbound SR99 and on the West Seattle bridge. For transit movement, King County Metro buses using the northbound bus lane on SR99 are functioning well. Bus operations staff are watching these routes closely.
We will continue to collect data as drivers and buses get used to the restored bus-only lane, and we will continue working with our partners to ensure buses are able to move along that pathway. We look forward to the opening of the Columbia St two-way transit pathway and Alaskan Way for buses, which will help provide an improved transit experience for our riders.
Last night, SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe talked about the situation during his return appearance before the West Seattle Transportation Coalition. But before we get to that – one thing not acknowledged in the SDOT statement is that the lane is not exactly the same as it was. That is mentioned, however, by Councilmember Lisa Herbold, in her response to upset constituents, shared with us by her staff. An excerpt:
… While there was a bus lane before the removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, it started closer to Downtown, and traffic formerly continued to the exit at Seneca Street, so this is a new situation which is clearly generating new impacts.
I have received several constituent e-mails from West Seattle bus riders and car drivers about delays travelling from West Seattle to Downtown during the morning commute. Backups have extended for both buses and cars on to the West Seattle Bridge, and then on to West Seattle streets such as SW Admiral Way, Fauntleroy Way SW and Delridge Way SW all the way to SW Orchard Street (by Home Depot). My staff has observed and experienced this as well.
As commenters have noted, the resulting bridge backup is in turn backing up West Seattle arterials. Herbold’s staff shared this photo of the Thursday morning backup on Admiral Way hill:
She is asking Zimbabwe to “let me and West Seattle constituents know, 1) what studies and/or traffic modeling was done about this; 2) how SDOT is working with WSDOT and King County Metro about this, and how the backups will be addressed.”
Last night at WSTC (full report including video later today, as this was just one of several topics he and other SDOT staff addressed), Zimbabwe said, “We recognize there’s been a serious problem this week.”
He confirmed that the decision was coordinated between SDOT, WSDOT, and Metro. They had started talking about reinstituting the lane back in spring. Now that it’s back, he said, they see the challenges and are “trying to understand them.” They’re also concerned about tunnel tolling starting November 9th and diverting up to 50 percent of the trafic using the tunnel now, which could further impact traffic at the Dearborn exit. He also mentioned they’re looking forward to the launch of the 2-way Columbia Pathway at year’s end, connecting to a fully available Alaskan Way in January.
Zimbabwe said he rides the bus (having taken the 21X to the meeting) and has also been directly affected, being late to a meeting at Sea-Tac earlier in the week because Route 50 took 45 minutes to get from West Seattle to the light-rail station.
So, both personally and via community complaints, they’re aware of the new 99 problem. But he said they don’t want to have to “scrape off” the bus lane, so they’ve bounced around a lot of possibilities – they hope to land on something with small changes that doesn’t entirely undo the lane. He did not elaborate on options for “changes” nor on a timetable; we’re continuing to follow up on those specifics.