New I-90 HOV lane from Mercer Island to Bellevue opens today

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WSDOT, Sound Transit continue partnership into third phase, preparing for East Link light rail construction; completed phases now offer full-time HOV lanes in both directions between Mercer Island and Bellevue

Commuters have a better option today for passing heavy traffic on I-90 from Mercer Island to Bellevue with the opening of a new, 24-hour HOV lane.

The opening marks completion of the second stage of a project important to maintaining traffic flow across Lake Washington. The final phase of the project will culminate in full-time HOV lanes in both directions of I-90 between Bellevue and Seattle, continuing a long-term partnership of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and Sound Transit.

"For the Central Puget Sound, as well as the entire state, I-90 is critical for getting people to work and back home on time and maintaining our economy," said state Deputy Transportation Secretary Dave Dye. "Adding these HOV lanes will make I-90 safer, smoother and better equipped to move more people in fewer cars."

"This important project offers immediate benefits for commuters travelling across Lake Washington at the same time it prepares for the fast-approaching start of light rail construction," said Sound Transit Board Chair and Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy. "The ability of people to get around our region in the future as our population keeps growing will depend on collaborative efforts like this."

When WSDOT opened the I-90 reversible express lanes more than 20 years ago, Dye added, they served traffic well because rush hour was 50 percent heavier westbound to Seattle in the morning and back to the Eastside in the evening. Today, traffic is heavy in both directions and peak periods last about an hour longer, so dedicated lanes for carpools and transit are necessary in both directions at all times to operate I-90 efficiently.

Not only will the project help ease traffic by making ridesharing a other modes better options, it will make way for construction of light rail from Seattle to Bellevue and Redmond.

The first phase of the I-90 Two-Way Transit and HOV Operations project, completed in 2008, added a 24-hour HOV lane on westbound I-90 between Bellevue and Mercer Island. The third and final phase will extend full-time HOV lanes in both directions between Mercer Island and Seattle.

Today Dye, McCarthy, Mercer Island Mayor Bruce Bassett and Bellevue Mayor Conrad Lee led a dedication event to open the latest project phase. Representatives from the agencies and partners gathered to cut a ribbon atop a newly realigned 80th Avenue Southeast on-ramp that provides direct access to the new HOV lane from Mercer Island. The first vehicle to drive down the completed ramp was a ST Express bus. The new lane will improve commutes on ST Express routes 550 and 554, as well as King County Metro Transit routes across I-90.

Once the full project is complete, Sound Transit will expand its East Link light rail construction onto the center lanes of I-90 and the floating bridge. The new lanes that WSDOT and Sound Transit are building on I-90 will enable preservation of the existing number of general purpose and HOV lanes when the center lanes close to traffic.

The second phase of the I-90 Two-Way Transit and HOV Operations Project was completed on time and within its $17.1 million construction budget. The total estimated cost of the three-phase project is approximately $256 million. Sound Transit is contributing approximately $216 million.

East Link light rail, with a projected 2030 ridership of 50,000, will dramatically expand the I-90 corridor's capacity carry people. In the longer term, as the region's population continues growing, East Link will continue to provide increasing transportation capacity in the corridor. Increases in the length and frequency of trains over time offer the capacity to carry from 9,000 to 12,000 people per hour in each direction, which would more than double the person-carrying capacity of I-90 and is roughly equivalent to seven to ten freeway lanes of vehicle traffic.

Riding East Link between downtown Bellevue and Seattle is projected to take less than 20 minutes. By comparison, the same trip on I-90 in the evening rush hour today takes about 45 minutes.