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    Highway clunkers: the state's design ideas

    Seattle's livability has been based on progress with restraint. It's questionable whether our two current mega-projects, the waterfront tunnel and a new Highway 520 bridge, embody either.

    The Alaskan Way Viaduct

    The Alaskan Way Viaduct Chuck Taylor

    A visualization of Seattle's central waterfront after construction of a tunnel.

    A visualization of Seattle's central waterfront after construction of a tunnel. Washington State Department of Transportation

    Highway 520 across Lake Washington

    Highway 520 across Lake Washington WSDOT

    It seems to me that good design would be a cure for controversy. 

    One problem with our process of building public infrastructure is that the builders get to critique their own work (in environmental impact statements), and they also get to define the scope and assumptions about alternatives, even ones they oppose. 

    Don't want to retrofit the Alaskan Way Viaduct or build a replacement? Proffer alternatives designed to offend the sensibilities of anyone: big, clunky, oafish. I'm half-convinced that the main attraction of the deep-bore tunnel is that we're sure that any other option will bring out our worst aesthetically. The fact is, beautiful viaducts and bridges are being built around the world. The same could be done here if we wanted. But knowing the state's and city's failures in the past, burying the problem looks like a solution, no matter the cost.

    A classic example of such a screw-up was I-5 through downtown. Activists protested the concrete "ditch" dividing the city and slashing across First Hill. They pleaded for a lid, at least. They were ignored, but they were right. To make up for the damage, movers like Jim Ellis wanted to mitigate the problem by building Freeway Park and the Convention Center over I-5, which has proved ineffective at bridging the divide. Also costly. One estimate is that for the cost of Freeway Park alone the corridor could have been lidded at the time of construction. Instead of paying now, we paid later at higher cost, for much less benefit.

    Even with the deep-bore tunnel, there are problems. One is the Seattle design commission's response to the South Portal proposal, which plops a big dose of view-blocking suburban freeway chic right where you want it least. The Washington State Department of Transportation has been asked to go back to the drawing board, but it makes you wonder: Would we want any kind of surface option from the guys designing this? It's as if WSDOT can hold us hostage with their lack of elegance, finesse, art, common sense. Sure, highways need to be practical and resilient, but do they really need to be so ugly? 

    Another concern is in Montlake with WSDOT's 520 expansion plans. While they're planning to tear down a viaduct on the waterfront, they're also scheming to build an expanded one through Portage Bay: wide, tall, plugging more traffic into I-5. A while ago, I talked to a state official who had viewed WSDOT's plans and referred to their scale as "Third Reich architecture." Artist's renderings aren't reassuring.

    One thing neighbors are worried about (and I am one) is the height of the new floating bridge across the lake. WSDOT wanted a height of 30 feet, and has since said they'd try to scale that down, but made no promises. There will be some 70 pontoons (more than double the current number) and according to the WSDOT project website, they are 28 feet high, 10 feet higher than the current ones. Gov. Christine Gregoire has literally vetoed any height limits on the bridge.

    But imagine a 30-foot or higher structure across the lake at double the current width: It's the Great Wall of Lake Washington that makes the existing bridge seem like a modest ribbon of necessity. The design process is ongoing, but why would anything like that even be proposed, let alone, to "replace" a bridge project that mitigated the fact that it should not have been built where it was by at least having a graceful, modern, and minimalist profile? 

    One of the hallmarks of Northwest modernism was deference to the natural environment. The first two Lake Washington floating bridges reflected that; the third (today's I-90 bridge, a replacement of an earlier version) is a pig, and the new 520 is a pig on steroids, especially given its context (the lake, Arboretum, Union Bay, etc.). Is one of the reasons there has been so much opposition on the Seattle side WSDOT's overreach? The piling on of mitigations and functions (sound barriers, tunnels, lids, overpasses, rail) have turned what should be a highway safety project into a how-do-we-finance-this-hog example of environmental and aesthetic thuggery?

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    Posted Fri, Apr 22, 6:48 a.m. Inappropriate

    Your are right on Mossback.

    The state DOT is lousy at design.

    Instead of focusing on fighting about really minor traffic engineering differences, city and state leaders ought to be insisting on design to match the landscape here.

    The DOT crowd seems to consider design to be what sort of stamp you put on a concrete wall.

    The new 520 should be built as close to the water as possible. High rise portions of the project should be based on impeccable design. The Viaduct through Portage Bay can easily be designed in ways that will look much better than what's there today.


    Posted Mon, Apr 25, 8:47 a.m. Inappropriate

    Highly paid consultants are responsible for most of the designs these days, not DOT engineers.
    NIMBYS should have requested a traditional 'signature bridge', instead of replacing the floating bridge.


    Posted Mon, Apr 25, 10:46 a.m. Inappropriate

    Would "having the city stay in the process at all levels" include citywide votes via the referendum process?

    Posted Mon, Apr 25, 11:57 a.m. Inappropriate

    Bubbie, we NIMBYs did request a signature bridge. In fact, consultants WSDOT brought to town to negotiate with the historic neighborhoods said that the present Portage Bay Bridge was the ugliest bridge they had ever seen and promised they could get the city a signature Portage Bay Bridge. No go.

    The high, double-decker floating box bridge has been in WSDOT's design for a long time, regardless of City Councilmember Bruce Harrell's suggesting that wave-attenuating design could be considered instead of greater height.

    We NIMBYs, by the way, are not just in Montlake. All of the communities along the SR 520 corridor who have had the present SR 520 close by in their front and backyards since 1962 are saying no to more highway and closer highway, not in Madison Park, Montlake, the boating community, the houseboat community, Portage Bay, Roanoke Park, North Capitol Hill, Eastlake. The communities along the north bank of Lake Washington are none too happy, either. NIMBY, you bet!

    Not only will the floating bridge be a new Viaduct unnecessarily high--maintenance could be done from barges, and a lower maintenance deck under the full length of the new higher floating bridge is an unnecessary extravagance--but it will also be more than twice as wide. The wider floating bridge will also be moved farther north, toward the middle of Lake Washington, and the new wider Portage Bay Bridge moved north will make that pretty little bay look like an expanse of concrete with a puddle on either side. SR 520 is already a tight fit as it runs through the neighborhoods we have so far mangaged to keep livable and valuable by means of a lot of civic activity and trying to pretend that its noise is "oceanic." NIMBY, you bet!

    A narrower footprint (four lanes) with good shoulders for disabled vehicles and a lower profile with wave-attenuating design plus landscaped lidding wherever possible would make sense, and one lid on the westside is promised vs. the Eastside's three lids in rapid succession before the highway even gets to Bellevue. Rep. Judy Clibborn from behind four lids over I-90 in the City of Mercer Island and most recently seen smiling from behind as the governor told us ad nauseum "the decision has been made," proposed eliminating the design's lid along Seward School over eleven lanes and six shoulders of I-5 to save costs. WSDOT complied. Those NIMBYs are just school kids playing outside at the junction of I-5 and SR 520.

    The westernmost part of the project is a reversible "flyover" (from the eastside in the morning, to the eastside in the evening) that will visit more air pollution and noise on Seward school kids and take out an express lane on I-5 for a ramp to give eastside commuters a transition between the flyover and I-5. Drivers going south from the Northgate area might object to that loss of a lane on an I-5 that will be choked by more lanes of traffic from the east and more traffic from the west in any of the tunnel or surface scenarios.

    Knute is right. The only thing that stands between our fair city and state-imposed ugliness and pollution is the city--the mayor and the city council. Five city councilmembers are up for re-election, and so far in a few appearances before the concerned communities don't seem to have gotten up to speed on the SR 520 project even though last year's Nelson/Nygaard report on the SR 520 project, which the city council commissioned and admired, pointed them in the right critical directions. One thing at a time--the tunnel and then 520, eh?

    Alas, WSDOT is pushing the SR 520 project along at an accelerated clip while the tunnel project is getting all the attention. To its credit, the mayor's office is casting a critical eye on both projects. We hope the City Council will speak up in time to influence the requirements and design decisions for SR 520 underway right now. We are surprised, too, as we pay our property taxes this month, that the county executive and the County Council haven't alerted themselves to the sure loss of tax revenues as the 520 project ruins the livability and desirability of some of our finest neighborhoods set in some of our most dramatic vistas and waters.

    We are still living in the 1960s, when such giant ruinous projects were "progress." Here in our dense city in the second decade of this century, we should know better, and we hope that our city leaders will resist. Small looks more and more beautiful. One size does not fit all. We need many kinds of solutions. Let's repeat those mantras as often as the governor insists, "the decision has been made."

    Posted Mon, Apr 25, 1:09 p.m. Inappropriate

    Just a little paring down to make a point, thank you:

    Knute is right. The only thing that stands between our fair city and state-imposed ugliness and pollution is the mayor and city council. Five city councilmembers are up for re-election. So far, concerned communities haven't gotten up to speed on the SR-520. Last year's Nelson/Nygaard report on SR-520, which the city council commissioned and praised, pointed them in the critical directions.

    Alas, WSDOT is pushing the SR-520 at an accelerated clip while the bored tunnel (fiasco) gets all the attention. The mayor's office is casting a critical eye on both projects. We hope the City Council will speak up in time to influence design decisions. The SR-520 project ruins the livability of our fine neighborhood settings of dramatic vistas and watersways.

    We must still be living the 1960s when giant ruinous projects were called progress. Today we should know better. We hope our city leaders will resist.

    — Erin O'connor & the staff


    Posted Mon, Apr 25, 2:01 p.m. Inappropriate

    This history of the resistance to the R.H. Thomson was posted today to the Montlake Community Forum. Fascinating reading.


    "The Montlake community and the R. H. Thomson Expressway: a preliminary case study of a successful freeway fight," Margaret Connon Johnson, July 1979

    Posted Mon, Apr 25, 2:46 p.m. Inappropriate


    That's the right term for all this concrete being imposed on the city in the name of automobile mobility. Thing is, it doesn't actually help congestion in the long run. Running ugly highways through what is some of the best urban land in the country only forces people out to the countryside to escape the city, just what we don't want.

    I too was appalled when the state came up with 30ft tall pontoons. Why? What is the point? The weight load will never push them down 29ft to become awash in the lake. What's a little spray over the top when the wind blows? So you have to slow down to 45mph, that's what adjustable lane speed limits are for. It adds maybe a minute to the crossing time.

    We need to keep focusing on the city we'd want to live in, visit and not the city we'd want to drive through at 60mph. We hear the "The decision has been made" when those in power know that they've made the wrong choice and are trying to save face. Gregoire is gone in 2012, and we'll still be here.


    Posted Mon, Apr 25, 3:50 p.m. Inappropriate

    If you can't get the link Benjamin posted to work (I couldn't), it's worthwhile typing it into your browser's address line. I'm reading the history of the R.H. Thomson right now, and it's fascinating in light of today's tunnel and SR 520 project disputes.

    Posted Mon, Apr 25, 4:37 p.m. Inappropriate

    (Crosscut's commenting system doesn't allow for live links at the moment.)

    Posted Mon, Apr 25, 7:29 p.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks Knute and Ben. When facing "progress with restraint, how quaint!" the best course is always to unearth forgotten tablets, if not just plain overlooked history. Newcomers and the young not too far encumbered by dogma are also not that dumb. Or at last they didn't used to be.


    Posted Tue, Apr 26, 8:29 a.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks Knute. It was refreshing to hear that elevated roadways aren’t really satanic conspiracies and that cities are actually still integrating them into modern transportation projects.

    Still the best idea for Seattle as well.


    Posted Tue, Apr 26, 4:34 p.m. Inappropriate

    Two points of Knute’s worth repeating are right here:

    1. Good design would be a cure for controversy,
    2. The fact is, beautiful viaducts and bridges are being built around the world.

    One suspects that the selection outcome for the viaduct replacement was prejudiced by the clunky design for the elevated. It’s easy to picture outside design talent coming up with something more modest, inspired and beautiful.
    Creating “surface solutions that enhance urban life” and reduce negative transportation impacts all around takes big bucks, too, if you factor in the infrastructure for mass transit. Some critical component is lacking locally. An external crisis that had gasoline sailing tupwards of six dollars a gallon might be a motivating catalyst. Seattle’s stars certainly haven’t aligned yet, anyway.


    Posted Wed, Apr 27, 2:26 p.m. Inappropriate

    Yes, I live in Montlake and could be considered a 520 NIMBY. I do understand that the bridge may need to have additional capacity--like an extra lane in each direction due to increased traffic. However the "one lane" addition that everone talks about is a joke! The added width to the bridge approach in Montlake is 84 feet wider than the current footprint. So for those who say they are only adding one lane I guess that makes the lane 42 feet wide in each direction. It is unreasonable to put an extra 84 feet of concrete through a lovely neighborhood. The plan for the 2nd Montlake bridge is a boondoggle. The bridge itself is to cost 80+ millon dollars and is to also provide more lanes for traffic, the joke is the lane additions are only for 1200 feet and will move the bottle neck to just by Husky stadium. And it we are to have this monstrosity of a plan, which increases traffic on Montlake Blvd, widens the west bridge approach way beyond the "one land addition" we should have a lid that covers the whole thing. The huge pontoons will have the effect of creating a "Great High Wall" across the Lake and if we build it that way, we will regret it from the day it is built until it sinks. Wonder if anyone in WSDOT has seen the bridges in Europe or ridden through the Chunnel--Lets see some creativity with the design not just more concrete.


    Posted Wed, Apr 27, 3:25 p.m. Inappropriate

    The way it works, by the time there is a public hearing or a study session it isn't because the government cares about what the taxpayer footing the bill wants, they already made up their mind. Whether its a stadium, highway, parks, stormwater, development, or your future, it doesn't matter.

    NO ONE CARES!!! and you keep voting them in,,,wake up


    Posted Thu, Apr 28, 3:32 p.m. Inappropriate

    Jim,I think you are right.I have attended a lot of public hearings and always get the impression that they are just pro forma. This morning I attended via video broadcast a meeting of the Executive Board of the Puget Sound Regional Council(PSRC). The chief agenda item was Stage 1, as they're calling it now, of the two-stage I-5 to Medina Project of the SR 520 Bridge Replacement and HOV Program. Stage 1 is the Floating Bridge and landings plus the separate Pontoon Project of the program. Stage 2 will be the Seattle side, from the West Approach landing to the new I-5 Flyover for Eastside communters.

    I learned that the PSRC approval process can go from (1)Candidate Project to (2) Conditional Approval for Design/Build to (3) Conditional Approval (Action) to (4) Final Approval.

    I'll relieve your suspense right now. The Executive Board of the council voted 97 percent to Mayor McGinn's 3 percent to move Stage 1 of the project from step 2 to step 3 before release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (due in June) and the Record of Decision (due in July). Mayor McGinn pointed out that the PSRC's own description of its process provides for out of order procedure "on occasion" although councilmembers assured a credulous Seattle City Council Transportation Chair Tom Rasmussen that it had become standard operating procedure as if that were a good thing.

    I also learned that this is the last the PSRC Executive Board members will have to do with stage 1 of the project except for giving it a small sum of money. The PSRC has essentially signed off as of today on whatever WSDOT wants to do in stage 1. Staff will determine whether the project, or any other project, I assume, receives Final Approval from the PSRC.

    Can approval of stage 2 with the same out of order procedure be far behind?

    In response to a question what will the staff be looking for as it reviews the FEIS to decide whether to give stage 1 final approval, the reply was that they'd check for "consistency of project description," that it would still be a six-lane floating bridge, not a four-lane bridge or a two-lane bridge or an eight-lane bridge. No mention was made of staff interest in FEIS findings, which it's probably safe to assume will be "it's all good" as usual by the time local effects have been buried in regionwide and statewide contexts. Nor was staff interest in a critical evaluatuion of findings methodology mentioned.

    For the record, Councilmember Bruce Harrell and Councilmember Tim Burgess voted Aye along with Councilmember Burgess, although they were otherwise mum. Dow Constantine and Kathy Lambert of the County, and, well, everybody else who was there except the mayor, voted Aye but were also mostly good as gold silent with no impertinent challenging questions.

    A few speakers from the public led off, with some seemingly good sense observations about whether the project was "ripe" for such a vote, the good possiblity of traffic congestion on I-5 and I-90 and neighborhood streets created by stage 1 (and stage 2) combined with the waterfront project, the lack of credible alternative and traffic analysis thus far, the suggestion from a civil engineer that fixes for safety could be relatively easily and cheaply accomplished while we waited to see the effects of tolling.

    As always when the public speaks at these events, no one from the dais engaged what they had to say--nary a follow-up question let alone a "that's a point worth considering." There was no deliberation or discussion about what the public had to say as if their views couldn't be anything but a sideshow, a diversion from serious business at the grown-ups table.

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