By Dean A. Radford
First the bad news, which should be no surprise to anyone.
That 14-mile stretch of Interstate 405 between Renton and Bellevue is the most congested piece of freeway in the state. That’s not much solace when you’re trying to get to work. But at least you have lots of company.
But the good news is that the state is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on I-405 from Tukwila to Bellevue and beyond by widening and removing bridges, including the Wilburton Tunnel in Bellevue, and adding lanes to shave minutes off that commute.
So how does the state arrive at its congestion estimation?
Going north to Bellevue from Renton at freeway speed – 60 mph – should take about 14 minutes. Anyone who drives the freeway regularly knows that doesn’t happen.
Here’s the reality.
“For someone to get to their destination, they would need to give themselves an hour,” said Stacy Trussler, the I-405 deputy project director for the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Going southbound, she said, the congestion is even worse.
And then there’s the other bottleneck that adds aggravating minutes – lots of them – to the northbound morning commute from Kent or Auburn to the Eastside.
That bottleneck is the complex interchange at State Route 167 (the Valley Freeway) and Interstate 405 in Renton. It has the distinction of being in a tie with the junction of Interstate 5 and I-90 in downtown Seattle as the most congested freeway interchange in the state.
“That is a critical link to relieving the congestion on the Eastside corridor,” Trussler said. The state will seek federal dollars to help make necessary improvements.
That congestion also causes backups on southbound 405 through downtown Renton when drivers queue in the right-hand lane to take the SR 167 exit to Kent and Auburn.
But help is already on the way, from Renton to Bellevue and all the way to where I-405 runs again into Interstate 5 north of Bothell.
When built, I-405 was intended as a relief valve for traffic on Interstate 5. Now, 405 has become the key freeway thoroughfare to handle the Eastside’s growth.
Already, the traffic is moving faster on 405 between Renton and Bellevue, thanks to the addition of a northbound lane between 112th Avenue Southeast in Newcastle and I-90. And because of that, Trussler says, the transportation department has received “a whole lot of love letters,” thanking the state for improving the commute and cutting down on travel times – about 20 or 25 minutes at certain times of the day.
The worst congestion from Renton to Bellevue has been reduced dramatically, with bottlenecks gone, Trussler says. But the state can’t yet consistently promise a 14-mile trip in 14 minutes, if that’s even a realistic goal. That’s because the state still doesn’t have the money to add capacity – more lanes – to 405 starting at about the Maple Valley Highway in Renton.
That work is being planned, at least conceptually, in a 405 master plan. In fact the state transportation department has a team that’s specifically charged with figuring out how to make the entire Eastside transportation corridor work better.
Already the state has $1.5 billion either spent or committed for “hot spots” and strategic improvements on the entire length of I-405, from its junction with I-5 at Tukwila to the south and its reconnection to I-5 to the north.
“We are well under way with the strategic and safety projects,” Trussler said.
About $180 million of that money is going to improvements in Renton, from roughly Southcenter to the Maple Valley Highway.
The work in Renton is being done in two stages. The first one will be completed this year and adds lanes to 405 between SR 167 and Tukwila. The second stage – visible now because of the massive earth-moving project near Renton City Hall – will add a freeway off-ramp and an onramp, easing traffic in downtown Renton.
The “Your Nickel at Work” signs at 405 construction sites refer to the 5-cent increase in the gas tax that voters approved in 2003. The federal government is also a major source of funding for the 405 projects, including some money from President Obama’s stimulus package.
The South Bellevue project, at a cost of about $124 million, is about 95 percent complete. It helps relieve congestion at one of the worst I-405 bottlenecks – the drive in and out of Bellevue.
That project included the removal of the Wilburton Tunnel, which carried the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks over the freeway. The project also included that much-loved new northbound lane starting near Newcastle.
The project also included between I-90 and Southeast Eighth Street in Bellevue:
- Building one new lane in each direction from I-90 to Southeast Eighth Street
- Building a new three-lane southbound bridge over I-90
- Converting the existing southbound bridge over I-90 to carry the northbound HOV lane.
Already completed is one of the so-called “nickel projects” in Kirkland. The transportation department is constructing a Stage 2 project that will add a lane northbound from Northeast 70th to Northeast 85th and southbound from SR 522 to Northeast 124th and Northeast 85th to SR 520.
The state transportation department has also selected Kiewit Pacific Co. of Renton to design and build a new northbound freeway lane in Bothell, at a cost of about $19.2 million. Crews will build the lane between Northeast 195th Street and State Route 527, where afternoon commuters face severe backups daily.
Dean A. Radford is Editor of the Renton Reporter. He can be contacted at email@example.com.