As a driver crawling through bumper-to-bumper traffic, it’s easy to stare at the empty highway shoulder and imagine driving up it and leaving all the congestion in the rearview mirror.
That will remain a fantasy for most of us, but starting Oct. 23, C-Tran buses that travel a particular portion of state Highway 14 will drive the shoulder when freeway traffic slows to below 35 mph.
For the next 18 months, C-Tran will operate a pilot project on Highway 14 between Interstate 205 and Southeast 164th Avenue that will allow buses to merge in and out of traffic as needed.
“This is all about efficiency of service,” said C-Tran spokeswoman Christine Selk. “The end goal is to get to a point where our service is efficient as possible and we’re shaving time off that route.”
The pilot is a collaboration between C-Tran and the Washington Department of Transportation, which jointly covered the project’s $50,000 cost.
The project is running for a limited period because C-Tran wants to gather data and understand if it is a solution for keeping buses running routes on time while they travel the increasingly congested corridor.
“Traffic is worsening in the metro area, and that extends to (Highway) 14,” Selk said. “Travel times in the morning on westbound 14 are getting longer and longer. Eastbound hasn’t been as bad, but it’s catching up.”
Buses will only be allowed to use the shoulder when traffic in the main lanes drops below 35 mph, and they won’t be allowed to drive more than 15 mph faster than traffic in the other lanes — and only up to 35 mph.
The highway’s shoulders will maintain their primary function as a safety area for roadway emergencies.
In fact, Tim Ball, an operator trainer for C-Tran said drivers encountered everything from broken down cars to cyclists while learning how to drive the bus on the side of the highway.
By using the shoulder, the agency estimates buses will save four minutes in mornings during westbound travel, and two minutes, 30 seconds during the evening rush hour while traveling eastbound. Estimates assume buses travel the full distance under heavy traffic and move 15 mph faster than the vehicles in regular lanes.
Depending on the results of the pilot, C-Tran will work with the Washington Department of Transportation to see if the program is something that should be implemented permanently.
“Most of the time, we do not expect to travel the full length,” Selk said in an email. “Obviously, at times that traffic is stopped due to some event, the savings could be significantly greater.”
WSDOT spokesman Bart Treece said the project has the potential to benefit the overall transportation system of Highway 14 by maximizing the use of pavement, while getting C-Tran passengers to their destinations faster and potentially keeping more people out of their own cars.
“The transportation system is more than just people behind the wheel, it’s the whole corridor,” he said.
Before agreeing to the project, WSDOT examined the pavement on the shoulder and found it wasn’t ready for the steady pounding of regular highway traffic, but it could handle occasional buses, Treece said.
Buses driving on shoulders is not a new idea in the transportation world. At least 16 states, including Washington, are home to transit agencies that operate a bus-on-shoulder system. Many of them were created more than 20 years ago.
In Washington, a bus-on-shoulder system is used on Interstate 405 near Bothell.