As design moves ahead for the Northeast 85th Station in Kirkland, Sound Transit’s own projections say only a few hundred people would go there to catch the buses promised in 2024.

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Sound Transit is betting $300 million that people will flock to freeway buses at a Kirkland site where nobody catches transit now.

Design is moving ahead for the Northeast 85th Station in Kirkland, even though the agency’s own projections say only a few hundred people would go there to catch new Interstate 405 buses, to arrive in 2024.

It’s the most expensive stop among 11 stations in a $1.1 billion, 37-mile corridor around the east side of Lake Washington. A new bus rapid transit (BRT) service, arriving every 10 minutes at peak times, was promised by the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure.

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“A river of bus rapid transit, from Everett to Bellevue to Renton to SeaTac,” is how Kirkland Mayor Amy Walen described the project in her state of the city address in February.

A surge of apartments or office towers can make the station more useful, but the transit board didn’t require density in ST3, and Kirkland hasn’t changed its land-use zoning.

Some growth is on the way. Developers are proposing a quartet of six-story buildings totaling 770 housing units, a grocery store and health club, where a Petco store stands now.

Still, the freeway remains isolated enough that City Manager Kurt Triplett is considering a mini-train funicular to shuttle people for one mile and a 250-foot climb from downtown to the freeway station. Parking isn’t in the station plans.

Sound Transit’s own models said the station would lure only 300 daily riders at first, and fewer than 1,000 per day by 2040, unless population and jobs grow alongside.

The high cost is driven mainly by a complete rebuild of the I-405 junction, so buses can quickly fetch riders along new center ramps. Consultants this year proposed a unique triple-deck interchange — with transit and walk-bike paths in the middle level — that they think is actually cheaper than rebuilding today’s huge cloverleaf interchange.

The construction will accompany the state Department of Transportation’s work to widen I-405, adding express toll lanes and exit-only lanes from Bellevue to Renton. On the north side, state lawmakers will consider spending WSDOT toll profits on more lanes to unclog an I-405 bottleneck at Bothell.

The goal is for I-405 buses to travel from Lynnwood to Bellevue in 42 minutes.

A $300 million outlay is comparable to one mile of light rail.

Skeptics like Kirkland resident Dan Ryan, a writer for Seattle Transit Blog, wonder if the money would be better spent on other services, such as faster bus lanes and bus-priority signals on routes through downtown Kirkland that go to the University of Washington and Bellevue.

But others believe future growth will come and make the investment worthwhile.

“I think people in general have been very supportive of it,” said Kirkland Councilmember Toby Nixon. “People have been raising eyebrows about the cost.”

Although Nixon campaigned against the $54 billion Sound Transit 3 tax measure in 2016, he’s optimistic Kirkland’s future will bring more homes and more jobs.

“That could result in more people riding the bus rapid transit,” he said.

A funicular?

Single-family homeowners a mile east have criticized a 133-unit apartment project that adds traffic, but closer to the freeway, four- to six-story density is already allowed.

Triplett predicted a decade will pass before 85th sees high-rise zoning for condo towers like downtown Bellevue or the 18-story, mostly residential tower just proposed in Lynnwood.

But he views the shorter, 770-unit Rose Hill project as a start to more transit-friendly development.

Architectural drawings feature sidewalks and plazas while touting the future BRT station three blocks away. They also reveal 1,311 parking stalls, reached via a rectangular “autocourt” centered among four apartment buildings — a far cry from zero-parking, transit-dependent units in some Seattle neighborhoods.

Kirkland considers the site a “transitional zone,” deputy planning director Adam Weinstein says, in which people commute by transit, and use their cars for weekend trips and night errands.

“It will change people’s perceptions of that corridor, when a big anchor like that happens,” Triplett said. “After the first building goes in people start to imagine another, and developers and property owners move in.”

In the meantime, most people will have to be brought to the station to meet I-405 buses.

During the ST3 planning negotiations in 2016, then-board Chairman Dow Constantine promised $45 million for bus-only lanes, leading to Northeast 85th Station.

But Kirkland is unwilling to evict cars from two of the four general-purpose lanes between downtown and I-405, nor widen a bridge on 85th for bus lanes, which would break the budget.

Ryan thinks people near downtown Kirkland won’t want to take a local bus east to I-405, transfer to Sound Transit at the freeway, then stand in the aisle to go south to Bellevue.

“I don’t see myself doing it much,” he said.

Kirkland officials have discussed aerial gondolas, which operate in downtown Portland and might someday climb to Simon Fraser University east of Vancouver, B.C.

Triplett’s now leaning toward a simpler idea: Build a funicular.

A chain or cable would pull railcars up the 250-foot-high slope from downtown Kirkland to I-405, like the Victoria Peak Tram in Hong Kong or Angels Flight Railway in Los Angeles.

Could one be built in Kirkland for the $45 million bus-lane allotment? Triplett wants to study that. A funicular might need only one pair of tracks plus a small bulge midway where a train going downhill can pass a train climbing up.

“Basically a bus-size tramway car, every 10 minutes,” he said. “They’re narrow enough it’s not that hard to do them.”

It would be simple to add a spur track that veers a short way south into Google’s campus, he said.

If funiculars don’t gain political traction, the discussion reverts to whether more east-west buses can get the job done.

Metro’s long-range plan for 85th prescribes buses every 15 minutes by 2024. A funding source isn’t identified yet. In theory, the launch of light rail through Bellevue, Overlake and Redmond will displace some bus routes, making service hours available elsewhere on the Eastside.

“We’re working with Metro to get an express bus from Redmond to downtown Kirkland,” said Sound Transit board member John Marchione, the Redmond mayor. “The more-frequent the service, the more riders we’ll get at that station.”


Three-level interchange

After ST3 passed, Sound Transit’s engineering consultants examined two dozen options before they invented the three-level interchange.

Nothing like it exists in the U.S., though some freeways have tri-level interchanges without bus stations, according to Federal Highway Administration staff.

Freeway buses would exit the center express toll lanes to meet passengers at the middle level, then re-enter I-405 at the end of an oval roundabout. Mainline freeway traffic would be above, and local east-west traffic would be on 85th below.

Drivers heading to and from the express toll lanes would share the midlevel roundabout with buses.

The station’s design would allow construction without disrupting I-405 general traffic. New north and south overpasses to carry general and toll lanes would be built on each side of the existing mainline — and only afterward would the old north-south lanes be demolished and the transit oval built in the center.

The final interchange would be skinnier than today, which might free up a couple of acres for development.

WSDOT officials talk about the safety of roundabouts, but this is a wholly new application. Walkers must beware of drivers who enter or exit I-405 toll lanes using the roundabout toward the marked crosswalks.

The design is still in the early stages, so there’s time to examine safety features, said Bernard van de Kamp, Sound Transit’s program manager.

Frequent service

Riders at Totem Lake, a couple of miles north, look forward to Sound Transit adding more-frequent buses.

“It would be better for me, in the off-peak hours for sure,” said commuter Oz Gonzalez. He would wait 10 to 15 minutes for the next bus, instead of 15 to 30 minutes.

And the added stop at 85th wouldn’t eat up much time, compared to the benefit of more frequency, he said.

“From here to downtown Bellevue it’s 13 minutes, can’t beat that,” he said recently as morning drivers tapped their brakes and the automobile toll spiked to $10 on I-405 express toll lanes.

A better solution, said commuter Vanessa Razo of north Kirkland, would be a train from Totem Lake and points north. As more people flee high Eastside housing prices, buses will fill at Lynnwood, long before reaching Kirkland, she predicted.

“I don’t know how they’ll fit people in,” Razo said.

Downtown Kirkland resident Brad Haverstein, a software engineer and “bus nerd,” said he appreciates the station’s design. He’s ambivalent about the trip uphill to the station but is glad the proposal creates walkways.

“If you’re going to build the station, this is the best you can do,” he said.

Triplett seeks to flip the question — what matters most isn’t how easily residents can leave Kirkland, but how easily workers can arrive from elsewhere, especially to Google on Sixth Street South.

Another yardstick is to pose the negative question, “What if you don’t add a station at 85th?” The answer is, there’s nowhere for people to catch the bus in a 5-mile gap between Totem Lake and downtown Bellevue.

“You’ve got to have a stop to serve Kirkland. I don’t know where else you would have it,” said transit-board member David Baker, mayor of Kenmore.

Marchione, the Redmond mayor, predicts growth will arrive, but not until the station becomes real in six years.

Like many big transportation projects, whether Northeast 85th Station is a boon or a boondoggle depends on how future communities exploit what it provides.