Friday evening, Jan 8th, I experienced first hand the congestion that is the I-5 commute north of Seattle. The occasion was a 6:00 PM drive to the Richmond Beach area. The approximate 11 miles from I-90 to 175th took nearly 40 minutes. Apparently this was pretty standard. (The 1/13/16, 6:00 PM travel times between Seattle and Lynnwood on the regular and express lanes were 47 and 46 minutes on the WSDOT Seattle Traffic website.) The PSRC “Stuck in Traffic: 2015 Report” HOV peak travel times from Seattle to Everett were 70 minutes indicated congestion continued way beyond Lynnwood.
Since I wasn’t driving I had “ample” time to observe the traffic flow on the regular lanes and part of the way on express lanes. Doing so gave me an indication of what the “red” and “black” colors for “Heavy” and “Stop and Go” on the WSDOT website really meant in terms of congestion.
I-5 traffic, as far as the eye could see, consisted of a sea of headlights. Every once in a while we would get up to 20-30 mph for short distances but it was mostly stop and go. Past Northgate we were able to use HOV lane until we had to work our way across to the 175th exit. Again, the PSRC data indicated the congestion extended well beyond our exit.
I was struck by the fact that all those commuters had to endure that ordeal every night. (Presumably the morning congestion going into Seattle was similar.) Prior to my retirement I commuted via bus from the east side into Seattle for bus connections to work at Boeing near Boeing Field. It took a little longer because of the initial wait for the bus, the intermediate stops, and the need to transfer. However, I used the extra time in the morning to read the paper and to relax (doze) on the way home and appreciated the economies of transit. I thought if I lived in the Richmond Beach area I would surely try to use buses to commute, particularly if faced with parking fees in Seattle.
Doing so however was easier said than done. The nearest parking was the 388 spaces in the Shoreline P&R. Those using the P&R had to ride M348 bus route to Northgate to catch M41 to reach Seattle. The M348 bus ran only every 30 minutes and took 40 minutes to reach Northgate. From there it was an additional “nominal” 20 minutes to the University St station in Seattle. Not exactly an attractive option. Even so, many seemed to be using transit since, according to the WSDOT spring 2015 “Park and Ride Inventory”, the P&R was 88% in “use”.
What surprised me was that according to the WSDOT inventory there were less than 5000 parking spaces with access to I-5 in all the P&R lots north of Seattle; nearly all of which were regularly in “use”. Since two of the biggest P&Rs, Ashway with 1022 spaces, and the Lynnwood T/C with 1370, were also used by I-405 commuters, even fewer spaces were available for I-5 transit riders.
Part of the surprise of the limited parking was that, according to an Oct 2014 Seattle Times article, 33,000 commuters managed to use transit during the three-hour morning and afternoon commutes. Obviously nearly all of them must live within walking distance of the bus routes. The fact the same article reported the bus routes averaged 79% capacity suggests they were also at full capacity during peak commute. Thus anyone attempting to ride transit faced problems with access and bus capacity.
The relatively large number of transit riders suggest any commuter who had access to existing P&R and bus service or lived within walking distance of a bus route was already likely doing so. The obvious solution to increase transit ridership from Richmond Beach and all the other areas along I-5 was to increase both the access to transit with additional P&R lots and increased bus service.
Yet very little, if any, of the nearly $600M Sound Transit has spent annually since Prop 1 was approved in 2008 has gone into either. They are projecting 60,000 daily riders by 2030 for the +$2B Northgate extension that begins service in 2021. Unless Sound Transit provides the additional P&R lots and bus connections to the light rail stations the only Central Link riders will be those who previously rode buses from Northgate or were on buses routed to Northgate rather than into Seattle. Neither of which would do anything to reduce the congestion.
What makes the current Central Link extension so absurd is that if either the PSRC estimate for 8880 riders per hour (RPH) or the more “optimistic” 12,000 is correct, the capacity is barely able to handle the current number of transit riders, let alone any they add with more parking and buses. It’s presumably this “belated” recognition that resulted in a proposal for a second tunnel under Seattle and a second set of tracks to Everett.
Sound Transit continues to plan spending hundreds of millions each year on a Northgate extension rather than using the money to add the thousands of P&R spaces and bus routes needed to reduce congestion. They are clearly oblivious to reality. Hopefully the voters rejections of the ST3 funding proposal this fall will "wake them up".