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A walkable, bikable Montlake? Just add money

Credit: Josh Cohen

There's no doubt that the new 520 Bridge will be a boon for people on bike or foot. Its planned non-motorized vehicle path between Seattle and the Eastside will provide a much-needed biking and walking route across Lake Washington. But if the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and Department of Planning and Development (DPD) have their way, the coming bridge construction could also remake Seattle's Montlake neighborhood into a great place for biking and walking.

SDOT & DPD had already planned a lid that would cover part of 520 as it runs through Montlake, which would include surface streets and parks and allow pedestrians to cross the highway. In response to criticism from advocates and community members, the two agencies recently released an updated vision for connecting bicyclists and pedestrians to and from the west end of the 520 bridge that would transform the walking and biking experience in that small corner of the city.

The plan includes an additional land bridge over 520, improvements to existing multi-use trails, shorter and safer pedestrian crossings at the Montlake-520 interchange, new and improved greenway routes and, perhaps most-ambitiously, a new pedestrian- and bike-only bridge across the Shipping Canal east of the Montlake Bridge.

“With a situation like [520’s reconstruction], you want to take advantage of every opportunity for improvement you can,” said DPD Urban Designer Lyle Bicknell.

There's just one roadblock: Most of the plan’s implementation is contingent on state transportation funding, which has yet to be allocated by the Legislature. ('Secondary' connections such as greenways and buffered bike lanes fall within the city’s purview.) According to DPD’s Bicknell, the city and the Washington State Department of Transportation are hoping to roll funding for the new plan in with a package to rebuild the Portage Bay Bridge, the piece of 520 that currently runs between I-5 and Montlake.

The Portage Bay Bridge part of the 520 project so far remains unfunded and will depend on the Legislature passing a transportation package that includes the Portage Bay Bridge funding proposal. An earlier version of the plan that included less bike and pedestrian infrastructure estimated the Portage Bay Bridge reconstruction would cost $1.3 billion. Bicknell said that WSDOT is currently working on estimates of how much the updated plan would cost.

“From the city’s perspective, we want to see all of [the bike and pedestrian enhancements] included in the final package,” said Bicknell. “We worked hard with neighbors and the state to come up with a financially responsible solution that also recognizes need for high quality pedestrian and bike facilities."

So far, only a few parts of the plan are currently funded as part of ongoing 520 construction. Those include a 14-foot-wide bike and pedestrian path on the north side of the 520 Bridge, from Montlake to Medina, (similar to the one on I-90) and a new multi-use path through the Arboretum. Also, a 22nd Ave greenway — a signed, low-traffic bike route on neighborhood streets — is already funded as part of Seattle’s Bicycle Master Plan update. Everything else is contingent on the city securing funding from the state.

The unfunded, but potentially valuable improvements include:

  • A bike and ped path on the south side of the Portage Bay Bridge.
  • A ped- and bike-only bridge over 520 that connects the Arboretum to East Montlake Park. The bridge would provide uninterrupted travel for bicyclists and walkers across the highway and over to the Montlake Bridge.
  • Straightening and widening the Bill Dawson multi-use trail that connects Montlake Park to the east side of 520 via an underpass.
  • A new underpass under Montlake Blvd connecting the 520 Bridge non-motorized path to the Bill Dawson Trail.
  • Raised crosswalks, shortened crossings, and new signals at the Montlake-520 interchange to make it easier and safer for pedestrians.
  • Protected bike lanes on Montlake Blvd
  • And, most expensive of all, a new ped- and bike-only bridge across the Shipping Canal, either directly beside the existing Montlake Bridge or slightly east between the bridge and the UW Boat House. With the new Link lightrail station opening at Husky Stadium, the city expects a significant increase in walkers and bikers crossing the Cut, which would overwhelm the Montlake Bridge’s current narrow sidewalk crossing.

Even if state funding is secured, the plan still has its share of critics. Cascade Bicycle Club Advocacy Director Jeff Aken said the club wants to see better bike and pedestrian connections on Montlake Ave from the UW Medical Center, Light Rail Station and the Burke-Gilman Trail south to Roanoke. Those connections are important, he says, for, “ensuring a safe, direct and convenient connection for those walking and biking in this corridor. This includes a second bascule bridge across the Montlake Cut for bikes and pedestrians and a protected bike lane along Montlake.”

Aken continued, “We’ve been happy to see the project improving over time, but we just want it to improve even more since it is a 100 year project.”

Lionel Job of the Montlake Greenways group appreciates the design for commuters, but says it is insufficiently safe for children and other less experienced users and doesn’t do enough to connect the core of the Montlake neighborhood to UW’s campus and the coming lightrail station.

Job says extending the 22nd Ave greenway across 520 is one potential solution. “Kids need to get to school, to the library and to the community center and its playfields. It is not reasonable to ask kids to double the distance to these facilities by walking through a tunnel or two, which are out of the way and inherently unsafe because they will be away from houses and activity.”

SDOT and DPD’s next step for the project is presenting their design to the City Council Transportation Committee on January 13. If the committee gives it the OK, it will go to the full council for a vote. Seattle’s approval of the design will give the plan more weight in Olympia as legislators consider its funding in the next state transportation package.

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