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Originally published Sunday, June 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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State says it's ready to open new 520 span in 2014

No agreement has been reached on what the west end of the Highway 520 bridge will look like when the aging structure is replaced.

Seattle Times staff reporter

No agreement has been reached on what the west end of the Highway 520 bridge will look like when the aging structure is replaced.

Nor has a financial plan been put together to pay for the project, now expected to cost $4.5 billion to $6.7 billion.

Despite those uncertainties, state transportation officials were upbeat about the future — and primed to bring a new bridge on line in 2014 — as they hosted a tour of the bridge Saturday during its annual shutdown for maintenance and inspection.

The bridge across Lake Washington was shut down Friday night and will reopen 5 a.m. Monday.

Using new authority granted by the Legislature this spring, state Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond told several bus loads of visitors to the bridge that her agency is getting ready to collect tolls and build pontoons for its replacement.

Tolls will start in late 2010 — the amount hasn't been determined.

There won't be toll booths, transportation officials said. Drivers may use transponders to pay electronically or they can be billed for each bridge crossing based on photos of their license plates.

The proceeds will fund construction of 360-foot-long pontoons for the new bridge.

The Department of Transportation is beginning the process of hiring a contractor and is about to announce a location on Grays Harbor where 2,000 workers will build pontoons, Hammond said. Potential contractors visited the bridge Saturday.

A four-lane bridge will open in 2014 just north of the existing four-lane structure, which was built in 1963. The new bridge will be expanded in 2016 with two bus and car-pool lanes, and a trail for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Until the new bridge opens, transportation workers reminded visitors, the old one is at risk in severe storms and earthquakes.

"It's basically, 'Hold your breath through a storm,' " Hammond said. "We watched I-90 sink once and I'm old enough to remember that. I worry a lot about it."

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(The I-90 bridge between Mercer Island and Seattle sank Nov. 25, 1990.)

Bridge-maintenance technician David Wheeler said post-tensioning cables installed 10 years ago have made "a huge difference" in stabilizing the bridge. "That was money well spent and probably saved us [during] the last couple storms," he said.

A task force is being created by the Legislature to recommend the route the new bridge should take in the Montlake area of Seattle.

Meanwhile, officials touring the bridge Saturday joked about how the bridge might be paid for. State Rep. Scott White, D-Seattle, told Hammond he would print money for the project.

Kirkland City Councilmember Bob Sternoff suggested holding a gala fundraiser on the east-end pontoons a few feet above the waves.

"It's either that, or it will be the McDonald's Bridge or the Microsoft Bridge," Hammond replied.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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