Commuters will learn soon whether a three-block-long bus lane helps the often-late Route 8 bus reach Capitol Hill, or just gets clogged by merging cars.
A bus-only lane opened Tuesday on Denny Way, in an attempt by the city and King County Metro Transit to pry loose the late Route 8 from gridlock.
The special markings extend three blocks, from Minor Avenue to Stewart Street, where buses bypass a chronic car lineup that’s crawling toward Interstate 5.
“We invest a lot of service there, and we want it to be reliable,” said Ben Smith, senior transit planner at the Seattle Department of Transportation. “We owe it to our customers.”
The new red lane provides buses an easier path to pick up passengers at a curb triangle facing Stewart, whose lone palm tree and plastic pyramids greet travelers entering the central city.
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A disadvantage is the likelihood that car drivers will clog the red lane until they find a gap in the competitive far-right lane — as occurs on Howell Street a couple blocks away.
And the new lane arrangement leaves only one through lane flowing west toward Seattle Center. In the Tuesday afternoon rush-hour, some drivers stopped to turn left, which caused bottlenecks and road rage in the single lane. The city will take a closer look at whether tweaks are needed, Smith said.
Drivers leaving South Lake Union should be alert for white stripes and signs instructing them to choose either the left eastbound lane of Denny, which goes straight-only toward Capitol Hill, or nose into the right lane marked right-turn only, for drivers joining I-5 at Yale Street.
Metro’s Route 8 to Capitol Hill serves 10,000 riders per day, and the red lane is only one among several street changes between Seattle Center and Kaiser Permanente’s Capitol Hill campus, designed to cut 1 to 2 minutes off each bus trip.
Smith said the city is striving to complete the full program this year. Changes include new bus shelters, removal of curbside parking and bans on some left turns. A head-start signal for buses to cross Fairview Avenue, toward Capitol Hill, wasn’t installed Tuesday and SDOT is still trying to figure out the best design, Smith said.
A pedestrian-activated stoplight to cross Denny at Minor Avenue wasn’t installed this week, but should be done by year’s end, city traffic engineer Dongho Chang said.
Pressure between South Lake Union and I-5 will only increase, as three apartment buildings with 1,500 units are being constructed next to the new red lane.
The Denny re-stripe was announced and then postponed a year ago, due to miscommunication between transportation staff and utility staff. An electrical substation to power the growing South Lake Union neighborhood is under construction, affecting users on Denny.
As crews finish the substation and tower construction intensifies across the street, people walking will continue to find sidewalks blocked the next few months.