Seattle, Eastside rattle their pitchforks over highway 520

There's a long history behind the complaint that Seattle is always ready to delay anybody else's safety project but wants help right now for its own worries. A new mayor puts himself in the eye of a building storm of bad feelings.
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Highway 520 across Lake Washington

There's a long history behind the complaint that Seattle is always ready to delay anybody else's safety project but wants help right now for its own worries. A new mayor puts himself in the eye of a building storm of bad feelings.

There are lots of ways to look at the Highway 520 bridge issues. Most, though, seem to have a good deal to do with geography.

That became clearer than ever after several Seattle political leaders, including Mayor Mike McGinn and House Speaker Frank Chopp, raised objections at a Monday news conference to the current state plans for rebuilding the Highway 520 bridge.

A KING 5 News poll found that among city residents with an opinion on the design, 46 percent agree with the mayor and other critics that, with the state expanding the bridge from four to six lanes, two of the lanes should be reserved for transit, with no access for car-poolers. Only 33 percent of city residents like the idea of having traditional HOV lanes combining bus transit and two or three-passenger vehicles.

But the current plan calls for exactly that. And Gov. Chris Gregoire accused the objectors of delaying the bridge. However, some of the behind-the-scenes talk is that the differences between the city and the state aren't that great in the whole scope of the project, mainly having to with designing how the new bridge ends in Seattle.

There's a Redmond-based group, the Northwest Progressive Institute, with which McGinn has a lot of shared, liberal values. On its blog, the Northwest Progressive Institute Advocate, the Montlake press conference brought a gale-force blast. Here's one straightforward passage (later, the writer really got warmed up, noting the increasing perception that Seattle's leaders act like children):

We Eastsiders (most of us at NPI live on the Eastside) are sick and tired of watching people who represent Seattle and run Seattle delay this project by throwing up roadblocks. Sen. Rodney Tom put it well when he told The Seattle Times: "To me, every time they turn the corner they come up with a new wrinkle. We have an agreement; let's move forward."

Note that the irritated Sen. Tom is a Democrat, like the speaker, the mayor, and, of course just about every other Seattle politician.

Obviously, Seattle has legitimate reasons to be concerned about how the bridge affects city neighborhoods. In fact, these serious issues stood out even as the state decided it could finally select a preferred alternative.

The plan is estimated to add 20,000 vehicles trips daily through the Washington Park Arboretum. More than a half-dozen neighborhoods are also worried about more traffic, fumes and noise. Advocates raise serious questions about how the traffic, new highway ramps, and bus-stop locations would affect the bicyclists and pedestrians who already travel in good numbers through the area and who are supposed to be encouraged in any serious transportation planning.

The larger issue, to be sure, is how to use the space for additional lanes on the bridge. At the press event, the theme of transit as the future overrode everything else. As Fran Conley of the Coalition for a Sustainable SR 520 put it, the big question is what kind of 520 will work as transportation for the next 60 to 80 years?

Conley got to that point after saying, "Many of us have spent years in processes sponsored by the state, working to design a good 520 highway. But we have to realize that the wrong question was being asked. The question that we were being asked was, 'How do you put a bigger 1950s-style highway through Seattle?' " The result, she said, was the design the mayor, some of the city council and Seattle legislators, including transportation-expert Sen. Ed Murray, now want to fight.

No one ever stopped and thought about that before? That's hard to swallow, though at the press event it was easy to blame former Mayor Greg Nickels (and, in Murray's case, the media) for having focused only on the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Murray tossed in another barb. Referring to a city council letter on 520 and what it might have meant for the state going ahead with 520 work on the east side of the lake, Murray said, "I'm not sure exactly what the council letter said, and I have read it several times."

After the press event, political columnist Joel Connelly laid out in devastating detail how the city and its own legislative representatives are doing quite a job of alienating the Eastside and its lawmakers in Olympia, who vote on matters affecting the city. As Connelly noted, a bill making progress through the Senate, SB 6366, would weaken cities' authority over permitting of major state transportation projects within their boundaries. Target: Seattle, of course.

While McGinn, as mayor, makes a big target for those angry about the press event, there is the reality that he is the newest actor in the group. A new mayor can hardly be held seriously accountable for building the political habits, processes, and whatever else lie behind Seattle's history of delays, indecision, and mixed messages on projects at home and in the region.

But there is an awkward inconsistency, which won't be missed on the Eastside, between McGinn's urgency about repairing the earthquake-endangered Seattle waterfront seawall and his urging of still more studies and returns to the drawing boards on how to handle the earthquake- and windstorm-prone 520 bridge. And the juxtaposition fits the larger narrative of a big city supposedly acting like a little, spoiled kid.

While Seattle leaders are framing their latest position as a matter of good judgment about the future, they can't expect anything but a good argument from the Eastside, the state and even businesses and institutions in the city. At a press event Thursday to urge moving ahead with the state's plan, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Seattle and the King County Labor Council lined up with the Bellevue City Council. Indeed, reported City Council President Richard Conlin (hardly lacking in progressive credentials himself) and four other council members were there to say they support the HOV lanes as part of the plan, while also saying the city's concerns about the west end of the project need to be resolved. The Northwest Progressive Institute says building HOV lanes to encourage car-pooling now is compatible with adding light-rail tracks later when funding becomes available.

Despite all the posturing and playing to key constituencies, the differences between the city and the state aren't that great in the whole scope of the project. Perhaps there is indeed a place in the middle of the bridge for everyone to meet. But with incumbents running scared in this populist political climate, they will be tempted to avoid coming down on either side of the issue before the fall election, kicking the decision can down the road one more time. The debate's only been going on for a decade, after all.


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