Long live Seattle's other boondoggle!

Last week's vote boosted the tunnel, but it also made it harder to rethink the 520 expansion.

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The 520 bridge-replacement project: a headline-grabbing example of infrastructure

Last week's vote boosted the tunnel, but it also made it harder to rethink the 520 expansion.

The victory for the deep-bore tunnel has consequences for Seattle's other mega-project: the expansion of Highway 520. Now that Mayor Mike McGinn is tunnel road-kill, what politician is going to step forward and take on an advanced project that has many of the same negatives: too much concrete, too much money, a problematic tolling plan?

The tunnel fight has sucked all the air out of the battle over boondoggles. The 520 project is moving ahead, albeit short a couple of billion dollars.  For the most part, opposition has failed to catch fire. If 520 is stalled or dies, it'll take something other than NIMBY outrage, or ideological purity. Opponents' best hope is a financing crisis, perhaps aided by Tim Eyman's tolling sabotage. That's the closest thing to a public vote 520 is likely to get.

Here's what appears to be the recipe for mega-project success: fix the process to get your highway or tunnel, then muddy the waters for opponents, especially the greens. Divide and conquer. Buy people off with some transit-and-bike-friendliness, but please, please don't waste any time looking at the big picture because, well, it's just too complicated. That was one issues with the so-called downtown surface option: it was a concept, not a plan, and it is much easier to imagine a road or a tunnel than a thousand little fixes and new behaviors.

Greens can also take satisfaction in small victories that make a big project incrementally better than it would be if the state highway builders were left to their own devices. The new 520 will not reduce sprawl, that's for sure. But who wants to be against putting bikes and pedestrians on it? 

Speaking of pictures, we are getting a clearer view from the Washington Department of Transportation about what they think the new 520 will look like. Activists have been troubled that WSDOT has not shown an accurate picture of the bridge's profile as it crosses the lake, a kind of Seafair-eye view, and have worried about the new bridge creating the Great Wall of Lake Washington, taller, wider, with massive pontoons that extend out on either side.

The Seattlepi.com dove into an addendum to the 520 project's EIS and put up a slide show that starts to give us a picture of the project from the Seattle perspective, where much is unfunded and undecided. The Seattle side of the project, in fact, is kind of a huge mitigation zone as the highway bulls through historic neighborhoods and sensitive wetlands. Still, while such images are always biased to make things look good and to smooth over the computerized rough edges, they are helpful. For people like me, who look at it and hear the traffic on 520 everyday, this is an important step in the process.

The new bridge will be 116 feet wide (vs. the current 60). The western high rise will be higher, but the overhead truss will be gone, flattening its profile. The view east on 520 from Capitol Hill toward Portage Bay shows an I-90-scale highway, but lids will be in place to lessen some of the impacts. (I don't know about you, but I think for the most part, if a project needs lids, the design has failed.)

In some places, higher barriers and walls will make it seem like you're shuttling down a chute. The images tend to give a bird's-eye view or one from distance; the experience from the driver's seat is not so clear, but my guess is that I-90 across Mercer Island is a good model. From below, the viaduct section through Portage Bay looks much chunkier than the mid-century minimalism of the original 520. But then, earthquake standards have changed. Still, the fact that there will be a bigger, stronger, wider above-ground viaduct here and not downtown seems odd. Was the cheaper re-build really such a bad option?

A new bascule bridge (drawbridge) alongside the old Montlake one looks really ugly and blocks the view East from the historic old bridge and will change the old world character of the cut. On the other hand, since the entrances and exits from Lake Washington Blvd. will be no more, those overpasses will be removed, de-cluttering that part of the Arboretum. Also slated for removal, unfortunately, are the ramps to nowhere. They are one of the city's great ruins, and every great city needs ruins. They area reminder of the citizen opposition to the highwayism that the new 520, for all its mitigations, still represents. 

It's a sad commentary that they are coming down.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.