Ideally RapidRide lines have bus lanes. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

In September, King County Metro began the planning process for the RapidRide K Line. The 18-mile line is anticipated to begin service in 2025 providing bus rapid transit (BRT) in Kirkland and Bellevue. The initial plans indicate a line that would link Totem Lake, Downtown Kirkland, South Kirkland, Downtown Bellevue, and Eastgate together in one consolidated bus service.

In the past two weeks, Metro staff have met with policymakers in Kirkland and Bellevue to brief them on the planning process. When the line launches, it will connect Sound Transit’s new Stride BRT line (opening in 2024) operating on I-405 and Link light rail Blue Line (opening in 2023) as well as Metro’s existing RapidRide B Line. All three lines would converge with the RapidRide K Line in Downtown Bellevue. Another convergence with the Stride would occur at Totem Lake. A potential third convergence with Stride could happen at NE 85th St and I-405, depending upon the alignment choice in Kirkland.

RapidRide K Line alignment options in Kirkland and Bellevue representative alignment. (King County)
RapidRide K Line alignment options in Kirkland and Bellevue representative alignment. (King County)

Between Totem Lake and Downtown Kirkland, Metro is considering two distinct alignment options for the RapidRide K Line:

  • Option A1 via NE 124th St and Market Street; and
  • Option A2 via 124th Ave NE and NE 85th St.

Option A2 would provide a faster service (25 minutes) and compete with New Route 239 (which starts in March). Travel times are projected to be 25 minutes for Option A2 versus 32 minutes for Option A1, which is currently served by Route 255.

Summary of the northern Kirkland alignment options. (King County)
Summary of the northern Kirkland alignment options. (King County)

Market Street is notorious for delays during peak hours, although existing bus lanes are helpful in moving buses where they are provided. Presumably, Option A1 performs worse time-wise because of the Market Street congestion. However, Option A2 would require operating buses along NE 85th St, which is fairly unpredictable itself. The state department of transportation is poised to spend a fortune to develop a complex interchange between NE 85th St and I-405, which may just result in the continuance of the existing car sewer with fancier freeway bus integration.

Regardless, both northern Kirkland options would provide about a 15% time savings over existing and planned bus service options. Option A2 would also serve the higher number of destinations and activity centers.

From Downtown Kirkland and South Kirkland, Metro is also considering two distinct alignment RapidRide K Line options:

  • Option B1 via State Street and Lake Washington Blvd NE; and
  • Option B2 via 108th Ave NE.

Option B1 would provide a faster service and compete with New Route 250 (which starts in March). Travel times are projected to be 20 minutes for Option B1 versus 22 minutes for Option B2, which is currently served by Route 255. Both options would involve running buses down heavily trafficked and narrow streets. The existing streets generally have enough for one general purpose lane in each direction plus a turn pocket and bike lanes. There is very little opportunity to add bus lanes along the streets, but those could prove vital near intersections if feasible.

Summary of the southern Kirkland alignment options. (King County)
Summary of the southern Kirkland alignment options. (King County)

Both southern Kirkland options would provide about a 15% time savings over existing and planned service options. However, Option B2 would serve a higher number of destinations and activity centers: 26 versus 17. That could mean higher long-term ridership potential from more boardings generated by the activity node. It also bears mentioning that Option B2 has the benefit of more amenable walksheds that could be coupled with transit-oriented development if land uses change in the future.

To minimize trip times, Options A2 and B1 appear to come out best with a total projected travel time of 45 minutes between Totem Lake and South Kirkland. Options A2 and B2, however, would provide nine more activity nodes along the corridor and just take two minutes longer to complete a trip. Neither of these pairs are endorsed in Metro Connects, the long-range plan for transit service by Metro, which considered Options A1 and B2 as the best pathway through Kirkland.

South of Kirkland, Metro is still touting the representative project alignment for Bellevue, but that could be refined through the planning process. Metro see an alignment via 116th Ave NE, Downtown Bellevue, Lake Hills Connector, and 145th Pl SE as a like pathway to reach Bellevue College and the Eastgate Park-and-Ride. This essentially would thread together portions of New Route 250 (which starts in March) and Route 271.

The pathway to reach Eastgate from Downtown Bellevue, however, is not an endorsed as a Frequent Rapid corridor in Bellevue’s adopted Transit Master Plan, but it is an endorsed Frequent Local corridor, which essentially has the same service frequency standards, but more stopping frequency–much more than a gold standard for bus rapid transit. Metro Connects endorses the representative project alignment.

Metro has indicated that the potential routing through Downtown Bellevue as well as Bellevue College is still up in the air. The college is particularly concerned about how students will be best served with an alignment. Likewise, Downtown Bellevue is already heavily served by buses such that there are capacity issues with the existing Bellevue Transit Center during peak hours.

In a meeting Monday, Bellevue Mayor John Chelminiak, who is soon to retire from public service, stressed to his city council colleagues the importance of the RapidRide K Line and the body of work ahead in planning for it. He said that the city holds a lot of the cards in determining its success, such as right-of-way use and management. Mayor Chelminiak also pointed out the critical nature of the Bellevue Transit Center, where more than a dozen bus routes converge today, including the RapidRide B Line. He said that it will not able to handle all routes, which increasingly means that other streets like 110th Ave NE, 106th Ave NE, and NE 4th St will become more critical in the future for bus service.

While beyond Bellevue, Mayor Chelminiak identified Kirkland streets as a particular kink in the system where congestion is acute during peak evening hours. He felt that working with Kirkland to identify how buses get through should be a priority discussion to have.

According to Metro, the total budget for the RapidRide K Line program is pegged at $90.5 million, of which $45 million will come from local funds (King County). An additional $2.2 million in state mobility grants has been secured and another $43 million will be sought from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) through a Small Start funding application, due for submission around August 2021.

The modest travel time savings in Kirkland are somewhat jarring for such a significant capital investment in the corridor. Reducing comparable trip times by 15% is certainly nothing something to sneeze at, but much of that seems like the product of lower dwell times at stops and fewer stops. The RapidRide J Line in Seattle is projected to attain a 30% or more time savings over existing options at a comparable cost. Priority at traffic signals as well as fully and partially dedicated right-of-way space at pinch points could shrink travel times further for the RapidRide K Line, but clearly there is challenging right-of-way to deal with. Will policymakers in Kirkland, as well as Bellevue, truly be willing to supercharge the RapidRide K Line with abundant time savings through right-of-way prioritization?

Draft concepts of the RapidRide K Line are planned to be released in early to mid-2020 and final concepts will follow in late 2020. A final ordinance accepting the concepts is expected be passed by the King County Council in January 2021.

Article Author

Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.