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Originally published Wednesday, May 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Seattle City Council approves Spokane Street Viaduct plan; Mercer rebuild still alive

Seattle will begin a long-awaited widening of its Spokane Street Viaduct later this year, to improve the crowded link from West Seattle...

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Seattle will begin a long-awaited widening of its Spokane Street Viaduct later this year, to improve the crowded link from West Seattle to Interstate 5.

And on the busy Mercer Street corridor, a controversial rebuild plan is still alive — if Mayor Greg Nickels can close a huge funding gap.

Both projects were stymied by the failure of last fall's Roads & Transit regional ballot measure, which included crucial money for both thoroughfares and a Sodo overpass at South Lander Street.

But on Tuesday, City Council members endorsed budget changes to postpone Lander, and to boost spending for the other two sites.

Spokane Street now has a green light, Mercer a yellow light and Lander a red, said Councilmember Jan Drago, chair of the transportation committee.

Spokane Street

The four-lane elevated road carries 84,000 vehicles a day, comparable to the Aurora Bridge. There are no shoulders, and its eastbound Sodo exit is obstructed every morning by merging trucks nearby.

The widening project will provide three lanes in each direction by 2010, as well as a two-lane offramp eastbound to Fourth Avenue South. One exit lane will be for buses — allowing a transit connection to the Sodo busway when the nearby Alaskan Way Viaduct closes in 2012 to make room for a new highway or surface street. There will be exit and entry ramps westbound at First Avenue South.

Some money will come from new employee and parking taxes the council passed in 2006, the same year voters passed a "Bridging the Gap" property tax for other street, bike-route and safety upgrades. Still, the city is short $40 million.

Transportation Director Grace Crunican said the city is ready to take bids this summer, while looking for more funds. She said the first segment — the two-lane exit loop — can be guaranteed.

Mercer Street

Motorists have fumed for decades about the "Mercer Mess" from I-5 to Seattle Center. More recently, city attention has shifted to serving the South Lake Union area, where Paul Allen's Vulcan leads a building boom.

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City plans would replace the roaring eastbound street with a wider, greener, two-way boulevard. Traffic through the corridor would move faster westbound, and slower eastbound, compared to doing nothing.

An earlier study predicted little or no overall improvement in traffic congestion.

Bike lanes and sidewalks would be added, while nearby Valley Street would shrink from five lanes to two lanes.

"Mercer is more than a street, it's a whole neighborhood we're trying to improve," said Councilmember Tom Rasmussen. New buildings and Lake Union Park will attract pedestrians and cyclists, who need safe access, he said. "It will be one of the most congested neighborhoods in the city."

Crunican said the rebuild would reduce backups on I-5, because curves and weaves would be removed for drivers going from the freeway to Seattle Center. Councilmember Richard McIver said a straighter street grid will reduce sideswipe crashes.

Cost estimates have increased by just more than $50 million, to a total $201 million. Nickels needs to find $88 million, including private funds or land donations, by March 31, the new plan says. To keep the effort going, the council endorsed spending $14 million this year for engineering and right-of-way purchases.

The plan passed by a 6-to-1 vote, with Councilmember Nick Licata against. "It just doesn't rise to the level of priority," he said of the Mercer portion. "Other projects do."

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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