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Highway 520: still stormy out there

Photo courtesy of KING-5

Traffic on the SR 520 bridge

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.

Transit is one area in which Seattle could use friends, and quite soon. With King County facing budget struggles in just about every area of service, Metro Transit is no exception. Light rail may have a glamorous image, but if Metro takes budget hits, Seattle neighborhoods would be hard hit, in ways ranging from convenience to their sense of progress on the environment. Winning the light rail battle on 520 wouldn’t help riders who lose bus service.

Former state Secretary of Transportation Doug MacDonald, who worries about the Metro issue as a regular bus rider, has given voice to another concern that has existed around the edges of light-rail discussions locally for years. That is whether rail deserves the singular attention it sometimes receives from transit advocates, particularly in this case, where the region has already decided to put rail across Lake Washington on I-90 after studying that route versus Highway 520 to see which would be better. MacDonald returned from a recent trip to Europe (Rome, Milan, and London) convinced that shared-right-of-way trams, modern bus systems (with electronic notifications of bus-wait times, for instance), small buses, and other innovative, flexible systems are important parts of a balanced, transit-oriented future.

Indeed, McGinn’s vision for light rail on Highway 520 calls for eliminating HOV lanes for carpools and buses when rail is added. Washington state Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond said, “I flat disagree with that.” The department, Hammond said, believes buses and carpools will remain important and those lanes will have to be preserved, even if light rail is eventually built on the route.

She hardly seemed to be in attack mode, but she said if frustration creeps into transportation officials’ voices, it is over their desire to move forward. “The leadership is to get that done, not just bring new ideas at the last minute,” she said. Hammond said the state expects to continue working with the Seattle City Council, which has been supportive generally, on improvements to ramps and traffic control on the Seattle side.

Councilmember Tom Rasmussen said there are some “promising and exciting” ideas for adjustments on the west end of the bridge that would improve environmental protections and make the project work better for buses, carpools, bicyclists, and pedestrians — particularly if a second Montlake Cut bridge is built to connect the University of Washington with the 520 area. The council, he said, will lay out its ideas by April 15, as the state has sought.

If McGinn wants the bridge to incorporate light-rail capacity from the start, Rasmussen said, “He is going to have to convince not only the state but also the region to go along with him.”

McGinn, for his part, said political leaders are capable of making quick changes and even adding extra money to large transportation projects when they are convinced there is good reason. McGinn has already become known for his emphasis on following public wishes, and he said that the release of the state’s preferred alternative at the end of the month shouldn’t preclude further discussion. At the end of his hour-long discussion with the media Tuesday (April 6), he referred to the 520 revision ideas and said, “This type of proposal, because of its potential for public support,” could get everyone further ahead faster than the state’s current ideas.

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