Listening to Mayor Mike McGinn outline his thoughts on the Highway 520 bridge Tuesday, it was possible to wonder why his opposition to the current design is such a big deal. Saying that the state's existing plan almost certainly wouldn't accommodate adding light rail later, McGinn and a consultant patiently explained to reporters how only three real design changes would be needed to preserve such a possibility.
A new report from the respected consulting firm Nelson/Nygaard cites dauntingly big and expensive changes if the bridge is built with the state's preferred design and then converted later to accommodate a light-rail line. But the mayor and Nelson/Nygaard's Tim Payne proposed three changes they believe would prepare the bridge for an easier conversion later.
To make light rail a cheaper, more viable addition, there would have to be a gap between central lanes for transit (either buses or eventually rail) so that the line could split off to the University of Washington, a key destination for transit riders, rather than adhering to the highway's alignment from the west edge of Lake Washington to I-5. The pontoon system for the bridge across Lake Washington would need some work to ensure it could take the weight of light rail without expensive changes in years to come. And there would likely have to be 10 feet in extra width across the lake &mdash bringing the bridge width to 125 feet across the water but allowing for a smaller footprint in some especially sensitive island and shore sections on the Seattle side where the transit route diverges.
None of this, they said, would require any real changes on the Eastside, where work is scheduled to start this summer. Most likely, McGinn said, the Washington state Department of Transportation might take six months to a year longer to do new design and environmental work on the Seattle portions of the project. But that could save as much or more time in avoiding likely court fights, he said.
Indeed, in the sedately modern setting of the Norman B. Rice Conference Room on the top floor of City Hall, the mayor managed to make it sound as if (political warfare aside) there was no real divide between Seattle and the Eastside over the replacement of the bridge. He said polling and past election results on Sound Transit showed no real differences between Seattle and the Eastside in the popularity of light rail. And McGinn noted that while many worried he, as a Sierra Club leader, was sinking light rail's future by opposing a combined transit/highways measure several years ago, voters rejected that plan and soon received a true transit measure, which they approved.
His message: Whatever they are saying about me being someone who can throw everything off track, opposition can be constructive.
McGinn said a number of times that there's just one chance to get Highway 520 right, because a project like the bridge replacement will last 50 to 75 years or more.
Of course, outside a well-presented discussion in a mayoral conference room, there are many arguments over what is very definitely seen as McGinn's picking a fight over 520. First, there is the concern that Seattle is solidifying enmity with not only the Eastside but just about every other part of the region.
The man for whom the conference room is named, former Mayor Norm Rice, says regional relations are so bad that Seattle couldn't talk someone into running out of a burning building. To a large degree, of course, McGinn is simply the heir of that problem; he's made the point himself that a greater focus on the 520 bridge by his predecessor, Mayor Greg Nickels, might have led to a project design McGinn would be comfortable defending now.
But there will be times, as Rice notes, when Seattle is going to need friends, on all sorts of issues. It might be better to give a few points to others now if you expect to win help from them later.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!