A good sign that you have a problem with a project is when the engineers throw everything they have at it. Look at the options for re-inventing 520 in Seattle and you see bigger roadways, new ramps, new draw bridges and overpasses, tunnels, lids, HOV lanes, man-made parks, transit hubs, rail stations, bigger viaducts, massive interchanges, taller and wider structures. It's as if the whole transportation tool-kit is being thrown at the problem. And please, let's be clear, nothing currently proposed for 520 is a simple "replacement." The new bridge, in whatever form, is slated to be bigger and an occasion to deal with other issues, like adding highway lanes or "fixing" bottlenecks at places like Montlake.
This is one of the reasons that "preferred options" and "consensus choices" and "compromises" are often suspect: in trying to please everyone, they please no one, and often do not solve any of the real problems. They too often create a duck-billed-platypus of public projects. Much political weight is given in Seattle to simple agreement, as if miraculously coming to terms on anything ought to be rewarded, but we have a long history of agreeing to do the wrong things, and paying for it later. We let I-5 slice the city in half and have spent multi-millions since trying to repair the damage. Fortunately, we also have a long history of second-guessing, activism, and stopping the "inevitable" in its tracks. The R. H. Thomson Expressway was stopped; the Bay Freeway was stopped; the plug pulled on the costly monorail Green Line, and I-90 improved after years of community protest.
In electing Mike McGinn as mayor, we elected an activist, and he's acting like one, staking out insurgent positions on two of the city's major transportation projects, the downtown tunnel and the expansion of 520. There should be little surprise that he's upsetting the 520 apple cart: anyone who has listened to him talk about transportation knows that it is too car-centric to meet his tastes. McGinn has declared that the era of highway building is over. Why would a mayor who supports the surface option for the post-Alaskan-Way-Viaduct waterfront support an expanded 520, one apparently on steroids?
But why doesn't McGinn go even further on 520. Why is a rebuild or tunnel not-okay for the waterfront, yet it is okay for 520? McGinn argues that 520 ought to be able to carry rail and have lanes dedicated to transit only, which goes part of the way. But why not reduce car capacity with a four-lane option with two dedicated to bus rapid transit or rail, or, even more radical, why not simply seek to remove the bridge entirely as he would the Viaduct?
Seattle's culture is largely anti-suburban, and so are many of its official policies, and this happened long before McGinn was elected. Sprawl is seen as something to be eradicated, though the region is doing a terrible job of that. The figures show, in fact, that most people have moved to the "wrong" places: the 'burbs and exurbs. If you're going to neutralize the carbon foot-print, and if you're going to chain the sprawl beast, it's going to take more dramatic action than building downtown condos and getting a few more folks on bikes. You're going to have to rewire the region.
One of the biggest drivers of sprawl has been the migration of employers to the suburbs, which happened here after World War II and accelerated in the 1960s. It has continued, with major expansions of new economy companies like Microsoft and Google. Microsoft, of course, wants a bigger 520, a state highway that is essentially a company driveway. Steve Ballmer would like eight lanes, and the more for cars the better. He'll settle for less, but opposes McGinn's more transit-friendly version. The mayor has issued a salvo asking Ballmer to host a town hall (yes, another) in which they could discuss (debate?) the topic. McGinn also appealed directly to Microsoft employees, many of whom are green politics allies, plus McGinn knows that employee opinion can impact the company's politics (like on gay marriage).
Microsoft is not anti-transit. Indeed, they started their own private bus system, one that Seattle transportation advocate Bruce Agnew has called "the best transit system in North America." They have also encouraged employees to live close-by in denser-then-typical suburban developments. Still, the car link between Seattle puts many Microsoft employees on the road because they do not want to live in the suburbs. They want the culture and edge of Seattle and the salaries and benefits of Redmond.
But can high densities really be achieved without people living closer to work? What if we actually removed 520? Why not a 520 "surface option?"
What would be the potential benefits?
First, instead of beginning the 21st century with a expansive new highway project through delicate lakefront wildlife habitat, the Arboretum and an historic neighborhood, the removal of the 520 bridge would be good for promoting density and reducing travel.
Seattle Microsoft employees, for example, would have to either drive or take transit via I-90, telecommute, or move closer to work. My hunch is the later option would be appealing. If Microsoft stayed in Redmond, the no-bridge option would increase suburban densities in Redmond and Bellevue, which is exactly where the Growth Management Act and regional planners want it (not to mention the Bellevue and Redmond business leadership). This would also create more Eastside demand for transit, such as connecting Bellevue and Redmond by light rail on the route already planned for I-90.
More Eastsiders working closer to home would also undoubtedly help shape and boost Eastside arts and deepening cultural diversity. This has already happened over the last 20 years, but it would accelerate and deepen. If you make it more difficult for people to commute across the lake, you will likely see suburban-turned-urban Eastside culture begin to flourish, a challenge, perhaps, for Seattle's sports and cultural institutions which rely on suburban audiences. But if you want Eastside cities to become more urban, that is a potential consequence.
Another choice, of course, would be to convince Microsoft to move its headquarters to Seattle, in which case it would boost urban densities (a city goal) and help fill downtown office space and put the company's employees within reach of already existing transit alternatives, including bus, rail and bike lanes. Given the dark green policies of the Seattle mayor, the carbon-phobia of the city council, and the density-at-all-costs philosophies of the Sierra Club, Great Cities, and countless others, why does it make sense to build a multi-billion-dollar freeway that only encourages commuting and facilitate sprawl?
As to rail, which McGinn supports on 520, is it really needed there? Sound Transit is putting rail across I-90, and has been reluctant to commit to 520 (they say they'll study it). But in their original planning, it wasn't in the cards. If you eliminated 520, you'd have more demand for I-90 rail, which could be expanded on the Eastside without looking to create more Seattle connections. Part of re-wiring the city is funneling folks into transit corridors, and clearly I-90 will be the major east-west link.
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