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Highway 520: still stormy out there

Mayor McGinn makes his case for changing the planned Highway 520 bridge replacement to accommodate a possible light-rail line from the start. That proposal faces rough going in a region tired of hearing Seattle's concerns.
Traffic on the SR 520 bridge

Traffic on the SR 520 bridge None

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.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Apr 7, 6:58 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent reporting. The Mayor looked pretty lonely yesterday. He's calling on other politicians in the region to agree with him. Is he calling them?

Jan

Posted Wed, Apr 7, 10:18 a.m. Inappropriate

The 520 bridge is not part of Seattle's street system. It is a state highway. The vast majority of people who cross it would never be able to take advantage of a light rail line between Seattle and Bellevue because the bridge is, for them, just one leg of a much longer drive. If having light rail on the 520 bridge is that important to Seattle's local transportation goals, let the City of Seattle pay the difference. That's not an unreasonable demand to make of the city.

dbreneman

Posted Wed, Apr 7, 11:10 a.m. Inappropriate

But even from Seattle's narrow self-interest, rail on 520 is
idiotic,logistically. Our mayor does not seem to grasp that Seattle is less than 20% of the greater Seattle metro area, and that our prosperity is more dependent on the rest of the region than it is dependent on Seattle.

DMorrill

Posted Wed, Apr 7, 12:11 p.m. Inappropriate

WSDOT is a corrupt organization assembled to serve automobile-related business interests, NOT the public. Corruption at the department heads, incompetence and obeisant servitude required in the lower ranks of WSDOT employees. Seattle's long-standing traffic nightmare is the intended result of WSDOT's agenda to make travel throughout the region impractical or impossible by any mode other than driving.

Mayor Mike McGinn is a fighter boldly defending Seattle area residents from previous and current DOT directors who should be charged with criminal negligence and serve the public behind prison bars.

Mike will also stop the Deep-Boor Tunnel travesty-fiasco because its engineering is abominable, whether Seattle's servile City Council realize it or not. MIKE MCGINN FOR GOVERNOR!

Wells

Posted Wed, Apr 7, 12:22 p.m. Inappropriate

With oil prices surging to an 18-month high today at $86/barrel(and this well before the summer driving season), it is readily apparent that we're going to be facing rapidly increasing prices for gasoline. Our traffic planners assume in there designs that we'll always have access to cheap inexpensive fuel. The A+ version a classic example of a design based in 1950s and 60s philosophy.

So the question that I'd pose -- is which design would you prefer should oil be $200 per barrel? Which design would you prefer if tax revenues continue to be flat and the cost of borrowing increases?

It is more likely that we'll implement a Bus Rapid Transit System across Lake Washington than rail. But that isn't quite as sexy, is it?

McGinn has done a poor job of laying out the vision. So let me give it a shot. With a dedicated right of way for transit (bus or rail), one would be able to embark in downtown Bellevue, transit across the lake, make a connection in Montlake to light rail, and attend a meeting in downtown Seattle. A seemless transit system makes this commute a reliable transit system. Sharing right of way with HOV means that transit will always be at the mercy of accidents and thus makes it unreliable.

McGinn, you've got it right. This is a better solution.

Posted Wed, Apr 7, 1:30 p.m. Inappropriate


Wilbur:

I took Sound Transit from Westlake to SeaTac three weeks ago and it took a bit under 30 minutes, and I didn't put any exhaust into the atmosphere, and I didn't have to hassle with parking. I loved it.

Everyone else:

What continues to amaze me about the human species is our inability to look down the road more than 1 lifetime, usually 1/2 a lifetime or less. Someday our calendars will say 2030, 2040, 2080 ... and at that time the region can either be choked with traffic, or we can have alternatives for crossing Lake Washington.

One argument against bond issues for mass transit that I've heard repeatedly in the 30 years I've been here is that "I don't want to give all that money to a bunch of inefficient/corrupt politicians and contractors to line their pockets." I've always thought, "You right about that, but when our backs are against the wall in terms of congestion, then we'll have to give those same corrupt/inefficient politicians and contractors many billion dollars more to play with."

So now is the right time to do light rail across the lake, while we're talking about rebuilding the bridge. The *region* will benefit from the foresight and the mindset of using mass transit instead of single occupancy vehicles.

Lindy

Lindy

Posted Wed, Apr 7, 2 p.m. Inappropriate

dbreneman,
If 520 is only a state highway, serving long-distance travel, unrelated to local streets, then we don't need the Montlake and Lake Washington Boulevard interchanges. I for one would be delighted if they were just shut down.

Okay, that would indeed be selfish, because you're incorrect about the destinations of 520 users. The majority of the people who use the bridge actually are going to a local destination near the 520 corridor; so they could take the train. The figure given the other day is that 55% of traffic over the 520 bridge is going to or from the University district. That destination is certainly one that could be well-served by light-rail. Indeed, it will be; construction of the North Link light-rail tunnel and Husky Stadium station has begun. The trouble is that it will only bring people from north and south; the truly crazy thing is that there is no plan to integrate that line with another from the east.

And light rail *is* about regional transportation goals. The studies a few years back showed that the freeways in the region are going to be bolluxed up in the future no matter how many lanes are added; therefore, to maintain mobility, we need to build a parallel and alternative system.

argus

Posted Wed, Apr 7, 4:49 p.m. Inappropriate

Pythagoras, you need to triangulate your vision again. If you're in downtown Bellevue and need to attend a meeting in downtown Seattle, you're going to take the approved and funded direct light rail line over the I-90 bridge. Not to pick on you too much, but just to illustrate that we don't seem to know what problem we are trying to solve. Are the majority of 520 trips to and from the U District, as Argus says? Are they amenable to transit? Would there be some big transit hub on the 520 rail line, where people would transfer to rail? Where would that be? Is it really desirable to eliminate multi-point bus service across 520 in favor of point to point rail?

In general, I'm persuaded by Doug MacDonald's articles here on Crosscut that light rail provides much less transit service for much more money than a mix of express and local buses could for the same money. But I'm not religious about it, and recognize that the people have voted for light rail expansion despite light rail's cost over-runs, delays, and underwhelming impact to date. Still, light rail advocates have to do a better job describing what unique need 520 rail serves beyond "light rail good - cars bad."

Posted Wed, Apr 7, 5:14 p.m. Inappropriate

VinceInSeattle -
Good points about the I-90 light rail to downtown. But I could have just as easily have said attend a meeting in South Lake Union or a conference at the UW though. The point that I was trying to make was that transit sharing lanes across a "choke-point" such as SR520 is not a good decision for architecture.

The key points of my post was that transit can only work as a reliable alternative when it doesn't share lanes with cars. I ride a vanpool everyday from Everett and it works great until the HOV lanes run out or as we cut across lanes to exit. Our transit times can vary from 30 to 60 minutes depending upon the traffic. Rain days being the worst.

As I mention in my post though, I see us pursuing Bus Rapid Transit across SR520 first. This is proving very easy to do without the high costs and extended build schedules that light rail has.

Let me pose the question a different way, shouldn't we look for an architecture that maximizes the total number of people crossing the bridge per hour? Intuitively, I don't see a shared HOV lane providing the same capability as a dedicated transit/rail lane.

Posted Wed, Apr 7, 5:36 p.m. Inappropriate

OK, Pythagoras, thanks for your message. AFAIK, the plan is for the 520 HOV lanes to be shared only as long as traffic in those lanes flows freely. Then they would become dedicated bus lanes. Isn't that right? And if so, doesn't that provide everything a transit advocate could want? Just rebuilding the bridge with continuous HOV lanes plus breakdown lanes would eliminate those awful merges and emergency traffic jams. The HOV lane could provide express bus service from Redmond, Kirkland, and Bellevue to UW and downtown, w/o transfer in the U district and on HOV lanes the whole way. Isn't that better than a light rail line from UW to Overlake only?

We've made a lot of HOV bypasses and freeway flyovers in recent years. More needs to be done. Isn't that a better use of limited funds than a limited UW-Overlake light rail line?

Posted Wed, Apr 7, 6:17 p.m. Inappropriate

There is no price tag in the article for what amounts to a "graded decision." Does this mean that none is yet available, or just sloppy reporting? A graded decision is a decision that retains future options, a choice generally preferable,dependent upon costs. From what IS offered in this article, I am unable to determine if the Mayor is wise or not for insisting upon a graded decision, of for that matter that he is actually doing that.

If the reporter is interested, here are things I'd like to know:
Would Bus Rapid Transit and ST Express be similar advantaged by the two of the three things the Mayor proposes that don't involve structural design of the pontoons?
As I understand it the feasibility/cost of adding the trains and track to I90 has yet to be confirmed, Is this correct?
A comparative analysis of adding same to I90 and building the capability into 520 (sans tracks--we've at least learned that lesson)
Answers to the questions raised above about where current and future users of 520 are going.
More truthful accounting of what the increased auto capacity on 520 will do when it hits I5 with and without BRT and future conversion to Rail if and when ridership justifies it.
Ditto, with and without the Mayor's three point graded decision.
A comparison of the ecological footprint and the carbon footprint of Seattle now and at some common point of time in the future.
In other words, evidence-based decision-making.

afreeman

Posted Wed, Apr 7, 7:33 p.m. Inappropriate

Yikes! If all that were known, there wouldn't be any need for several hundred pages and several hundred thousand dollars of EIS.

Posted Wed, Apr 7, 9:14 p.m. Inappropriate

VinceInSeattle -
I don't think that we are too far apart in our thinking. The key difference between McGinn's plan and Option A+ is the improved connectivity for high capacity transit. The Option A+ plan requires bus service to re-join the surface traffic to cross the Montlake Cut and connect with the U-Link station at Husky Stadium. Alternatively, passengers would have to walk from the University Light Rail station across the cut to catch transit at SR520.

See View C in the attached document.
http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/NR/rdonlyres/9FAB7A34-6AEC-4EA2-872B-FE05736322A9/0/OptA.pdf

Option A+ also requires Bus Service to share lanes across Portage Bay. The Express Lanes would be available to Bus Service into downtown but only when in the direction that they are pointing. If you do a reverse commute, i.e. travel from Seattle to Bellevue in the morning, you'll be stuck in the General Purpose lanes at I-5. (See Page 36 of McGinn's study)

McGinn's plan though only requests extra width at Foster Island so that the center lanes, which are Bus Rapid Transit/Light Rail, may diverge from the traffic and connect directly to the University Light Rail station.

See Figures 10 through 13 in the report for options to connect to the station at the UW Husky stadium parking lot:
http://www.seattle.gov/mayor/PDF/SR520-MayorsDRAFTReport_040610.pdf

In closing, we're talking about more than just a UW-Overlake rail line. There are a variety of rail options outlined in the report. See Page 55 in particular which lays out potential expansion on the eastside.

And that really is McGinn's point--namely that we shouldn't be limiting our options in the rush to build the SR520 replacement. A good analogy may be that we should consider moving people in the same way that we consider the movement of data in computer networks. Our transit design should be focused on creating nodes which permit poeple to move rapidly and efficiently between different modes of transportation.

Thanks for the dialogue. I wouldn't have dug into either the Washington DOT documents or McGinn's report without the prompting.

Posted Wed, Apr 7, 10:30 p.m. Inappropriate

I think the obsession with light rail is going to lead to another financial boondoggle that we cannot afford and which will not solve our transit needs.

Its doesn't make sense to spend billions of dollars on an inflexible light rail system when bus rapid transit can be done at a much lower cost and provide greater flexibility.

Mayor McGinn is really leading us down the wrong path with his crazy rail obsession. Also, I wonder what is he doing to run the city with all its daily nitty gritty needs? Instead what I see is a single minded narrow focus on his pet issues and the willingness to waste hundreds of thousands on polls and studies to support his cause.

What Seattle needs is a mayor who's really interested in being the mayor!

Posted Thu, Apr 8, 10:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Um, wouldn't it be, just stupid? to build a new bridge you couldn't add rail to?

And really, the same is true of a design that doesn't give transit a direct non-stop access to the U of W. Are you kidding me? Who comes up with these ideas?

Well, obviously, the Washington State Department of Transportation. The meteor is coming and these are the dinosaurs.

In fact, it verges on the criminal that the DOT would plan to build a bridge that can't be converted. This is empire-building on the grandest scale, and future generations will not thank you for it.

Posted Thu, Apr 8, 11:36 a.m. Inappropriate

Vince,
i have lost track of which side you are taking, which is not a bad thing. Your comment just following mine above is not clear to me.

Are you saying one or more of the EISs are not yet final? Most likely I90s?
Are you saying they are and you know some or all the answers, if so, either you could share what you know or, in the alternative, the reporter should be able to find it and report it.
Are you saying our minds are made up, no more facts please.

I am saying McGinn may have put his finger on some flaws and contributed city funds to making the case for doing a better job on the planning studies and coordinating EISs.. Considering the short time it took him, I suspect he stopped short a full blown case. However, on the surface, it sounds good enough for the agencies involved to provide some of the missing information either directly or in a supplemental EIS. Sometimes, government agencies respond to good cases in a responsible manner, at other times they take the chance that no one will sue.

I too wish the Mayor would fight more for the "program" instead of his preconception of the "means," but as far as I can tell he happens to be fighting for the program in this case, ulterior motive or not.

Serial, et al,
There is a Midwest farm joke in my extended family about the neighbor lady who would exclaim "just enough" as guests scraped last morsels from last bowl. The exclaim, here abouts giving guests a good laugh is "close enough." Right on.

afreeman

Posted Thu, Apr 8, 5:50 p.m. Inappropriate

I was just pointing out, with what I hoped would come across as genial humor, that the article said that working through all McGinn's proposals would require six months or more of engineering and supplemental EIS. Your list of questions are quite a tall order for an online news reporter; some answers are undoubtedly in what must be a very tall stack of studies and EISs to date, while others dealing specifically with McGinn's proposals and their effects would require new studies. I thought blaming the reporter for not answering them was a little harsh, just my opinion, I'm sometimes a little harsh in my comments too.

As for taking a side, I'm afraid I don't have one when it comes to 520. There is so much I don't know about where 520 traffic originates and terminates and so many pieces in the air regarding cost and configuration, that I can't form an informed opinion. I don't want to be an ideologue, pro- or anti-car, or pro-rail/anti-bus or the reverse. Is McGinn a pro-rail ideologue? I don't know - maybe. BTW my hat's off to Pythagoras for the links, but I'm afraid I'm not going to have time to chase them down. Personally, I don't live close to 520 and don't travel across it too often, and am willing to trust that the plan that emerges is reasonably cost-effective, keeps the road moving, and permits transit in some form.

Posted Thu, Apr 8, 8:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Light rail is totally wrong for 520. Buses are the only logical option. Mayor McGinn does not understand transit or transportation. He is fixated on light rail as the end all be all answer to everything.

Everyone I know who lives in downtown owns a car. Those who don't depend on the bus system. The percentage who depend on light rail are minuscule.

Light rail is for fixed transportation between hubs. They supplement buses.

2cents

Posted Fri, Apr 9, 9:35 a.m. Inappropriate

Light rail proposals all boil down to this. They mainly benefit people who live or work in Seattle. It's the old Metro Transit hub and spoke model. Everyone, in their view is traveling in, within, or out of Seattle. If you want to get, say, from Federal Way to Redmond, you'd better be willing to do it via Seattle. I, like a lot of people, neither live nor work in Seattle. So, in a rail-centric model, at some point in my commute I'd need a parking lot so I can park my car at the light rail station I depart from. Then, after riding light rail, some other mode of transport from the light rail station to my job. This is not a practical solution for many. Until this is addressed, the only thing I and tens of thousands like me get from light rail is higher taxes.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Apr 12, 7:06 a.m. Inappropriate

dbreneman's last is just wrong. Putting rail on 520 would provide a direct link between Microsoft and the U of W that would not go downtown. Considering that these are basically the two biggest employers/economic powers in the state, I don't know why this isn't intuitively obvious.

On a broader note, many people, including the former Dept of Transportation head, are not understanding that bad things happen when you add a large number of riders to a bus system. McGinn is simply looking forward ten years, and pointing out that no actual construction will be harmed by replaning the western end of the bridge to accommodate future light rail.

Even a taxpayer who doesn't live in Seattle can appreciate the wisdom of saving $300 million in the future by spending $5 million today. Those are state funds being spent. WSDOT is planning here to come back 10 years from now and spend another half billion. We could use some of that money out in Belfair. WSDOT should get their head screwed on straight.

Posted Mon, Apr 12, 9:16 a.m. Inappropriate

Wilbur – the idea isn’t necessarily to connect MS to UW and deliver riders from one to the other. It’s that these are major origins/destinations in the system-wide demand. Riders will more likely enter and exit the bus/rail transit system when their origin or destination is easily accessible.

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