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Mercer Island, express lanes
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Life without the express lanes on I-90

Mercer Island residents lost special access to HOV lanes when WSDOT handed them over to Sound Transit for the construction of a light rail line across the I-90 bridge. (City of Mercer Island)

Drivers on I-90 have been living without the express lanes for just over three months now. What have we learned in that time?

The express lanes were turned-over to Sound Transit in the first week of June 2017. We saw immediate impacts during the first few commutes. There were bigger backups, especially across Mercer Island, and the average travel times went up a bit.

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Annie Johnson, with the Washington State Department of Transportation, told me that despite those negative impacts, the transition has been relatively smooth.

“We’ll definitely be keeping an eye on how traffic continues to flow,” she said.  “We’ve seen some changes in the corridor, but it’s been about in line with what we expected when we made the change to close the express lanes.”

The state does not have a complete analysis of the data yet, but I have noticed about a 4-8 minute slower trip westbound in the morning and more routine backups from I-405 across Mercer Island. Bellevue to Seattle on I-90 has been running at about 24 minutes during the height of the morning commute. At its worst, without accidents, drivers have seen backups as far away as Eastgate, but those have not been very frequent.

“We’ve seen more congestion across Mercer Island and back toward in the westbound direction in the morning, and that also correlates with some slightly increased travel times from Bellevue and Issaquah,” Johnson said.

But drivers have been getting a quicker trip in the westbound direction in the afternoon. The same thing can be said for the eastbound direction in the morning. The eastbound afternoon drive has also experienced a slight increase in the average travel time.

The change happened late in the school year, so it’s not quite clear how school traffic will affect commute times along the corridor now that classes are starting. Johnson said I-90 doesn’t experience wild seasonal traffic pattern changes so what we’ve been experiencing should be close to reality. We’ll have to wait and see what it looks like once University of Washington students and everyone else returns from summer vacation.

Mercer Island was preparing for more congestion through its downtown core because it lost its solo access to the HOV lane. That means more drivers are having to enter the freeway in a different location. Johnson said the state continues to work with Mercer Island to make the reality easier.

“We made some adjustments to the signal timing on Mercer Island and to the ramp meters as needed,” Johnson said.

Many drivers are still reporting HOV violations. What has your experience been?

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