McGinn, legislators seek changes to 520 bridge design
Political wrangling over the design of the proposed Highway 520 replacement bridge continues, with Seattle paying $250,000 to study light rail, a lawmaker proposing yet another idea and Microsoft saying it's time to move on.
Seattle Times transportation reporter
Rather than trust the state's plan for a six-lane Highway 520 toll bridge, the city of Seattle will spend $250,000 this spring trying to change the design.
Lawmakers decided three years ago on a bridge configuration — leaving the option of light rail to be decided in the future — and are working to push parts of the funding plan through the Legislature.
But Seattle is insisting light-rail plans be made now, and hired consulting team Nelson\Nygaard to examine how tracks can be added to the bridge, as well as ways to reduce the size of a future Montlake interchange, Mayor Mike McGinn announced Tuesday. The report is due in April, not too late to re-engineer the bridge, he hopes.
Meanwhile, in Olympia, an entirely new idea is taking shape. Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said Tuesday he'd like to add a Montlake stop known as a flyer station to connect bus riders from across the bridge with light rail in Sound Transit's Capitol Hill line.
Microsoft on Tuesday, trying to stave off those kinds of late changes, jumped into the debate with a full-page ad in The Seattle Times to support the current state plan: "It's Time for Action on the 520 Bridge. Let's Move!"
Those events further cloud the already murky political swamp, as various leaders disagree over whether to move ahead with an already approved plan or put things on hold to further explore alternate designs.
The existing bridge, built in 1963, is at risk of sinking in an earthquake or severe windstorm. Design talks for a replacement have been ongoing since 1997.
Many neighbors in Montlake are alarmed at state plans for the new interchange to be nearly a football field wide, after new shoulders, two more lanes, and carpool exits are built.
Three years ago, lawmakers compromised on two general lanes and one lane for carpool and bus traffic in each direction, on a $4.65 billion bridge. By expanding the deck and adding more pontoons, such a bridge could be retrofitted to take rail — a generation or two in the future, for hundreds of millions of dollars, they said.
Sound Transit's 15-year expansion plan includes a study of light rail in the 520 corridor. Such a line, from Overlake to Ballard, might be included in a future ballot measure. But this month, McGinn, House Speaker Frank Chopp of Seattle and other elected officials and community groups said they want to explore a smaller design that includes light rail immediately.
Gov. Chris Gregoire pushed back, saying that would require up to two more years of studies and would delay the project. And Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue, said talks have lasted long enough.
McGinn predicted the state would face more years of delay fighting Montlake neighbors about the current design than if DOT changed course to embrace light rail.
It's unclear whether any changes are likely this session, as lawmakers wrestle with potential budget cuts and tax increases.
"The governor has said over and over she wants the bridge built, as a public-safety concern. She wants it done on time, on budget, and she has a plan to do it," spokesman Cory Curtis said Tuesday.
Compared with other Fortune 500 companies, "Microsoft is more reliant on a single piece of infrastructure that is antiquated," general counsel Brad Smith said. The company estimates that its employees make up about 4 percent of the 115,000 or so daily bridge crossings.
A few 520-related bills are working their way through Olympia this month. One would allow tolls next year to help rebuild the noncontroversial Eastside bridge approaches. The state recently awarded a contract for pontoon work to begin late this year in Grays Harbor County.
McGinn said he's concerned that in the coming days, laws will pass that tie the city's hands on design issues, or lock the state into a car-dominated bridge.
He volleyed Microsoft's argument by calling a Tuesday afternoon news briefing, where he announced the hiring of the consulting firm and also quoted company co-founder Bill Gates, who spoke to an international audience this month about the need to stop global warming.
McGinn reiterated Tuesday that the new bridge should have rail the day it opens, in the mid- to late-2010s. "This is the kind of shift I think Bill Gates is calling for," he said.
State Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said he's lost hope for a major rethinking of the bridge.
Nonetheless, he said he is promoting bill language that would shift $200 million in expected construction savings to improve the Montlake-area design, and to require a station where buses would drop off people near the light-rail stop at Husky Stadium, to open in 2016.
Microsoft's Smith called for compromise, saying that in the past, Microsoft supported a six-lane bridge even though other Eastside backers wanted eight lanes.
"The perfect is not just the enemy of the good," he said in an interview Tuesday, summing up the last quarter-century of Seattle transportation politics. "It's the enemy of doing anything."
But McGinn compares 520 debates to the state's Highway 99 planning, where Gregoire and other political leaders announced in November 2008 that either a surface or elevated road would replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, then changed course within a few weeks to pick a tunnel.
"We know we have the capacity in this region to make bold transportation decisions if we want to," McGinn said.
Sound Transit has for years said it would be impossible to insert trains from Montlake into the north-south tunnel, heading downtown. The agency is already designing a multibillion-dollar Interstate 90 rail crossing to reach Bellevue in 2020.
McGinn said Tuesday that people are quite capable of walking off a 520 train at Husky Stadium, going down a flight or two of stairs, and boarding Sound Transit's North Link.
Under Pedersen's plan, bus-rapid transit would cross the 520 bridge, then stop alongside the highway, where passengers could get off the east-west bus and descend to the north-south trains. He said that would avoid building a second Montlake drawbridge for buses to move between 520 and Sound Transit's Husky Stadium station, as the state is now planning.
He said key lawmakers are warming to the Montlake-stop idea, which might be added to 520 legislation soon.
Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said Tuesday that adding a Montlake flyer station would be very expensive, as the Capitol Hill Tunnel is already completely designed.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or email@example.com
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