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Originally published February 17, 2010 at 7:23 AM | Page modified February 17, 2010 at 9:30 PM

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Seattle gets stimulus money, could begin Mercer work this summer

Seattle will receive $30 million in federal stimulus money to help rebuild eastbound Mercer Street into an attractive two-way boulevard.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Seattle has won $30 million in federal stimulus money to transform bumpy eastbound Mercer Street into a marquee entrance to the growing South Lake Union business district.

Construction could begin this summer, Seattle transportation officials said Wednesday. Mercer will be converted into a two-way street that includes wide sidewalks, street trees and other amenities.

City leaders hope that high-tech employees and new residents in the growing neighborhood will cross Mercer to reach Lake Union Park, or have lunch at cafes nearby.

The money is part of a $1.5 billion fund created by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that will go to Mercer Street and some 50 other winning projects announced by the federal Department of Transportation.

Also getting stimulus funds is a portion of Highway 395 in north Spokane, where $35 million will add a pair of freeway lanes.

But once again, the crumbling South Park Bridge just outside Seattle has been left out.

Last year, local and state officials snubbed it while awarding $492 million in federal stimulus aid. The rationale then was that South Park wasn't yet "shovel ready."

But since then, an environmental-impact statement has been completed, prompting officials from King County, which owns the bridge, to announce they were in good position to win funds.

Mercer Street's $30 million was short of the $50 million the city had requested under former Mayor Greg Nickels, as the final funding piece for a $200 million project. But the city expects to save $15 million because the Spokane Street replacement is coming in under budget. And with low bids expected for Mercer, the project should be ready to go after about a decade of planning.

Mercer Street

Known as the "Mercer Mess" for four decades, the Mercer corridor now is no longer just the entry to Seattle Center and Interstate 5, but a main route into the growing South Lake Union business district.

Amazon.com is building a new headquarters near Mercer, whose existing neighbors include the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and UW Medicine. A few blocks west are Seattle Center, the future Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters, and a future interchange linking Mercer Street to the state's proposed Alaskan Way Tunnel.

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Despite the infamous "Mercer Mess" jams that have lasted four decades, Seattle city leaders have made urban revival a higher goal than simply moving cars.

In fact, traffic studies predict that eastbound drivers to I-5 will actually spend more minutes in traffic jams after the eastbound street is changed to three lanes each direction.

Drivers leaving I-5 westbound should face fewer backups, though, because they won't need to snake through two curves and two stoplights via Valley Street. Besides the Mercer conversion, the city will narrow Valley Street to two car lanes plus bike lanes.

Eugene Wasserman, president of the North Seattle Industrial Association, is urging the city to add a fourth eastbound lane to reduce bottlenecks — instead of putting in parking along the roadside. He hopes to persuade new Mayor Mike McGinn and new city transportation Director Peter Hahn to change the design.

City Council members hailed the news of the stimulus money Wednesday.

"I look forward to this project advancing," said Councilman Bruce Harrell. "It will create a more direct connection between the two urban centers of Uptown and South Lake Union; enhance the bicycle and pedestrian environments and allow for a more direct route between I-5 and Seattle Center."

Councilman Nick Licata has criticized the project in the past for focusing too much on serving trendy South Lake Union and Paul Allen's land development firm, Vulcan Inc., at the expense of other city needs.

Landowners are contributing about $31 million to the rebuild.

Clamor for cash

All told, the feds received some 1,400 requests under what is called the TIGER — for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery — program. Together the applications came to 40 times the available money, according to federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Murray and Gov. Chris Gregoire celebrated the Mercer project funding, saying it would add thousands of jobs in construction and in ongoing development of the South Lake Union area.

"I created the TIGER grant program to fund projects just like this one," Murray said. "Projects that not only create jobs in the construction phase, but that also address regional economic needs. This project lies in the heart of one of the most important economic engines in our state."

It also will affect freight movement. After the tunnel opens, some trucks from Ballard and Aurora Avenue North would likely use Mercer Street to reach Interstate 5, because there will no longer be onramps to Highway 99 at Elliott Avenue, and combustible liquids would be banned in a tunnel.

South Park

At the city's south end, the crumbling South Park Bridge again missed out on federal stimulus funding, after the owner, King County, applied for $99 million.

The span connects a low-income neighborhood to the rest of the city, and provides an important truck delivery route to industrial sites close to Boeing Field.

The county says it might have to close the bridge in June. Its foundations sit in weak soil, and concrete is flaking away.

State and local elected officials snubbed South Park last year, saying a construction start would be too far off for jobs to be created that would help stimulate the economy in 2009. They awarded some $492 million in federal aid to other road projects, including a new Redmond overpass serving wealthy Microsoft Corp., which also contributed millions to construction.

Linda Dougherty, county roads director, speculated Wednesday that federal government favored projects that involved a public-private funding partnership or offered "multimodal" transit, pedestrian, or bicycling features.

The South Park Bridge is a more traditional replacement project, and the fact it served a needy area wasn't enough to prevail, she said.

She said the bridge will compete in "TIGER 2," a $600 million federal fund to be distributed in April.

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

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