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Originally published Tuesday, April 26, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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DOT on 520 project: "the sooner the better"

It has been called one of the nation's worst traffic bottlenecks, a seismic hazard, a disaster waiting to happen. Now, replacing the Evergreen...

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

It has been called one of the nation's worst traffic bottlenecks, a seismic hazard, a disaster waiting to happen. Now, replacing the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge also is being called a top priority, though funding for the project remains hundreds of millions of dollars short.

Before adjourning Sunday, the state Legislature approved a transportation budget that gives the Highway 520 bridge-replacement project $500 million, a little more than a quarter of the money the state says it needs to build the most basic of replacement spans it's considering.

Just how dangerous is this bridge?

The state Department of Transportation (DOT) maintains that the 520 bridge, which opened in 1963 and underwent a major seismic retrofit in 1999, is near the end of its useful life, and must be replaced for the safety of people in the 115,000 vehicles that cross it each day.

There's a 1-in-20 chance the hollow columns that support its approach spans could fail during an earthquake. It floats low in the water, and winter windstorms that heave waves across its four lanes stress its aging pontoons and anchors. It has endured several earthquakes and weathered various traffic and boating accidents — including a barge that smashed into a pillar supporting the bridge's high-rise section in 2000, prompting the closure of one eastbound lane for several weeks.

Despite all this, the state says the bridge remains safe to cross. But the state also says it would be wise to replace the span with a structure better equipped to withstand winds faster than 90 mph, endless rain and the occasional earthquake.

520 bridge history


The floating portion of the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge remains the longest concrete floating bridge in the world at 7,518 feet, nearly 1 ½ miles. The entire span stretches 12,404 feet — more than 2 miles — from shore to shore.

1960: Construction begins on the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge.

1963: Bridge opens.

1972: Two people drown and four others spend six hours in the water when their boat is blown against the bridge pontoons, prompting the state Highway Commission later to approve dozens of ladders alongside the bridge so that people on disabled boats could climb to safety.

1979: Tolls removed from the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge.

1988: State Transportation Commission renames the span the Gov. Albert D. Rosellini Evergreen Point Bridge.

1989: One person is killed and five others injured when the drawspan unexpectedly raises during a routine test.

1990: Part of the I-90 bridge sinks into Lake Washington during renovations, sending throngs of commuters to the Highway 520 bridge.

2000: A barge smashes a pillar supporting the bridge's high-rise section, causing the closure of one eastbound lane for several weeks.

2003: The state Legislature gives the 520 bridge project $52 million for preliminary environmental work, right-of-way purchases and design.

2005: The state Legislature gives the 520 bridge project $500 million. The project nears completion of its draft environmental-impact statement.

Sources: State Department of Transportation, news reports

"There's no date that we're counting down to. It's just the sooner the better," said Jon Higgins, a DOT spokesman. "Eventually, the Band-Aid fixes become more expensive and less effective as you keep doing them, so it's in everyone's best interest in terms of time, safety, traffic, money to replace it now rather than keep bandaging it."

Life without the bridge — which studies show serves Seattle-bound and Eastside-bound commuters in equal numbers — could further complicate an already-aggravating commute.

The state estimates that if an earthquake put 520 out of commission, the travel time between downtown Seattle and Redmond would nearly double from an average of 33 minutes to 55 minutes during the peak evening drive.

Thoughts of the havoc such congestion could wreak on the Eastside's economy, as well as the safety risks, have prompted leaders, including Redmond Mayor Rosemarie Ives, to urge that the 520 replacement project move faster.

The state will have about $574 million, between its share of 2003's 5-cent gasoline-tax increase and the Legislature's latest 9.5-cent gasoline-tax increase, to put toward initial design, environmental work, buying of some of the land it will need for construction and possibly funding some of the actual work.

The project's draft environmental-impact statement, which looks into the effects of building a four- or six-lane span or not replacing it at all, is expected to be done in December, Higgins said.

Project leaders are set to choose a design they like best in the fall, and they still are assessing a proposal from residents of Seattle's Montlake neighborhood to build a soaring, dramatic approach from Portage Bay.

But actually building a new span would require between $1.7 billion and nearly $3 billion, depending on the number of lanes. Some of that, about $700 million, could come from tolls. Beyond that, the 520 project must compete for funding with other roadways that have worst-case scenarios of their own.

Lawmakers earmarked $2 billion for Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct, which has shifted and settled 4 ¼ inches since the 2001 Nisqually earthquake and now is barely 2 inches away from needing significant repairs.

While both bridges pose safety risks, planning for the viaduct has progressed further. Seattle leaders want to replace the viaduct with a $4 billion tunnel. It's not clear what design 520's backers will select.

State Sen. Luke Esser, R-Bellevue, said Interstate 405 received $972 million in the transportation budget — nearly twice as much as the 520 bridge — partly because plans for it are more specific.

"We know exactly what we want to do with Interstate 405. There's already a preferred alternative that's been created by the I-405 executive committee. Most of the design and engineering work is done. There are good cost estimates," Esser said.

"The challenge with 520 is there's no preferred alternative yet. There's no decision that, 'This is the bridge we want and here's where we want it and here's a good cost estimate as to what it will cost.' "

It will be up to the Regional Transportation Investment District, a taxing authority, to persuade local voters to make up the difference in their taxes by January 2007, or risk losing funds for projects.

This uncertainty of timing is reflected in the state's timeline for the project. It predicts the state will begin seeking bids in 2009 but doesn't guess when a new bridge could float across Lake Washington.

Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or kgaudette@seattletimes.com

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