Riders on two Seattle-to-Bellevue buses were stranded on a freeway ramp for more than an hour Thursday, because of a communication breakdown between transportation agencies, during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden.
“It was a management screw-up,” said passenger Steve Finley, who was riding on Sound Transit Route 550 from the International District/Chinatown Station to south Bellevue.
That bus and another one behind it carried a total of about 100 passengers, he said.
King County Metro Transit apologized Monday for the delay.
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The incident happened at 11:15 a.m. where a bus-only ramp leaves the downtown transit tunnel to meet the left side of eastbound Interstate 90. A left-side entrance to the I-90 express lanes lies just ahead.
A motorcade carrying Biden was on the way, which caused the express lanes to close at 10:23 a.m., according to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). The express lanes remained closed for roughly four hours, while the mainline closed for only a few minutes.
Communication faltered somehow between the WSDOT and Metro, which operates Route 550 under contract.
Transit staff thought buses could use the ramp, then weave over to the right and proceed through the general lanes, said Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer. Instead, the Route 550 drivers encountered orange cones and a WSDOT incident truck blocking bus access entirely, he said.
Biden’s motorcade wove left from the mainline into the express lanes. Finley saw the motorcade pass at about noon, followed by general traffic resuming in the I-90 mainline.
Finally, a transit supervisor boarded the bus and backed it down to the far south end of the bus tunnel, Finley said in an email shared with elected officials. The bus let riders off near a maintenance base at Royal Brougham Way South, instead of Chinatown, where the 550 picks up riders.
“That’s completely inexcusable,” Finley said. “Why would you do that to somebody?”
Finley said he walked back to Chinatown to catch a 1:15 p.m.bus, which detoured to use the regular lanes on I-90.
Some displaced riders were elderly, and some carried luggage, he said. Finley overheard a restaurant employee and a personal-electronics retailer call their bosses to say they’d be late to work in Bellevue.
“We apologize for the riders who had to sit as long as they did on these buses, and who were dropped off farther from transit services than they should have been,” Switzer said.
Dave McCormick, assistant regional administrator for the WSDOT, said he plans to discuss the episode at a regular June 26 meeting with the State Patrol and Metro, and figure out how to avoid a repeat.
“The hardest thing on Earth is to communicate effectively. Clearly this is a communication issue.”
Finley had praise for the first driver, who strove to pass on updates, including advice on where to find lunch, and for the driver on his later bus to Bellevue, who let delayed passengers board free.
“All the drivers I deal with, they’re great,” he said.
Thousands of other travelers Thursday endured a tedious morning commute in which a broken expansion joint triggered a 10-mile backup on southbound I-5.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @mikelindblom