Cars, bikes: Competing views of Northgate transit makeover
Sound Transit wants to build a parking garage for its future light-rail hub at Northgate. But some critics say it would be smarter to invest in bicycle and pedestrian improvements, including a nearby footbridge over Interstate 5.
Seattle Times transportation reporter
Northgate Mall, heralded as one of the world's first drive-up shopping centers in 1950, has suddenly become ground zero in Seattle's so-called war on cars.
Sound Transit is taking criticism for proposing a 600- to 900-stall parking garage, costing $30 million or more, as part of its new Northgate light-rail station. The transit agency says it needs the multistory garage because construction equipment and supplies will take over the existing surface park-and-ride lots for up to six years.
After the station opens in 2021, transit managers say, having a permanent garage will free up some of those surface lots for redevelopment. The site could accommodate high-rise apartment or condo buildings and a plaza for bus drop-offs. Residents would likely be frequent train riders, officials hope.
But that vision doesn't satisfy some neighbors and environmentalists, who question the value of spending tens of millions of dollars catering to cars when many streets nearby don't even have sidewalks.
"This is our chance to transform a 1950s part of the city dominated by an ocean of parking lots into a bike-
able, walkable and transit-rich community where everyone who wants to can safely bike or walk to the station," wrote Craig Benjamin, policy and government-affairs manager for the Cascade Bicycle Club, in a blog post.
It would make more sense, critics say, to build an east-west bicycle and pedestrian bridge over Interstate 5, to make it easier, safer and more appealing for nearby residents to reach the transit hub.
Transit officials reply they are bound by a previous agreement to add parking and don't have unlimited amounts of money to build the footbridge.
Sound Transit predicts that in 2030, some 15,000 people a day will board trains at Northgate. About 8 percent will arrive by car. Today, about 30 percent of the 5,000 daily bus passengers arrive by car. At a forum this week, members of the bike club, echoing the Occupy movement's "We are the 99%" slogan, handed out yellow stickers stamped "92%".
"You're not 'Sound Parking.' Your name is Sound Transit," shouted Jacob Struiksma, a member of the city's pedestrian advisory board.
The transit board, made up of local elected officials, is scheduled to approve a full Northgate Station plan and budget this month. But if leaders dither, Sound Transit could miss its schedule to bring light-rail trains to Northgate by 2021. The Bellevue line already was delayed two years, to 2023.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, a board member, "will be giving what Sound Transit puts forward a hard look," said Aaron Pickus, a spokesman. The mayor also wants to consider the bridge concept, Pickus said.
"We could fill more"
Park-and-ride use is popular in King County, where most major lots are filled or overflowing. The 1,500 spots at Northgate are generally full, sending people to park on surrounding streets.
"We could fill more, I could assure you of that," says Ron Posthuma, a Metro Transit assistant director for planning.
Ahmad Fazel, Sound Transit's light-rail director, says he's required to follow a planning document approved in 2006 by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). It allows a range of options, such as using transit shuttles during light-rail construction, to building a pair of garages, totaling 1,400 stalls.
What the agency absolutely pledged was to replace all permanently lost parking spots one-for-one. Officials decided it would be wise, and meet federal mandates, to replace all 890 spaces that will be temporarily taken during construction. Half would be for park-and-riders, and half belong to Simon Property Group, the mall owner.
Critics say that the agency could comply by replacing far fewer.
"We don't want to cannibalize the strong transit ridership that's there today, over the six years we're building the station," Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray said.
He said the agency would have lost $2.5 million a year if it provided temporary shuttles. By comparison, he said, a garage is thought to require $13 million to $14 million in transit money, assuming Simon picks up the other half. But there's no firm cost-sharing deal in place at present.
Benjamin calls the proposal a "backroom deal that's bad for bicycling."
Far from being a regional draw, the Northgate park-and-ride lot is heavily used by residents who drive only a short distance to use it.
A Metro study of license-plate data found that half of all users live within two miles. And four-fifths live within a half-mile of bus routes that feed into Northgate.
This suggests that some people might leave their cars at home if there were safe, appealing alternatives to walking on Northgate Way under I-5, or biking along busy Fifth Avenue Northeast.
"It's shocking how close they actually live," says Eric Youngblut, vice president of the Pinehurst Community Council, northeast of the mall. He knows at least four people who say it's safer to drive to Northgate than to take a bus or bike there.
Last week, Michael Wilson and Ashley Mason drove into a mall garage and parked on the third floor — outside the designated park-and-ride area — and hurried downstairs to the bus platform.
They live in the Greenwood neighborhood, along a bus line.
But they said the Route 75 bus goes too slowly to their jobs at the University of Washington, via Lake City and Sand Point.
"It takes about one hour on the 75. If we drive down here, it takes 35 to 40 minutes," Wilson said.
Greg Snapp, who catches the Route 41 bus to downtown, said a bridge will attract students, but business people are "dressed for work and they're not going to ride bicycles."
He supports a bridge: "Just make it so it works and is affordable for taxpayers."
The park-and-ride flap has breathed life into the idea of spanning I-5 near North Seattle Community College. The idea surfaced in former Mayor Greg Nickels' Bicycle Master Plan of 2007 but went nowhere.
It would nearly double the area where people could reach the rail station from within one mile, supporters argue. A preliminary engineering study, done for Metro last year found that a bridge would cost $16 million to $18 million.
To make it a reality, several governments would need to create a partnership similar to what was done for the South Park Bridge, officials say.
City Councilmember Richard Conlin says a contribution from Sound Transit isn't unreasonable. The agency won't hesitate to spend more than $1 million on pedestrian bridges at Sounder commuter-train stations serving a few hundred people — whereas Northgate will attract thousands, he said.
State Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, says a bike bridge is needed far sooner than 2021, and he would push for state support next year.
Sound Transit emphasizes it's not trying to flood the neighborhood with more cars, but simply maintain existing levels.
The rancor would be far more intense, says Fazel, if the conversation were about displacing hundreds of people from their accustomed park-and-ride spaces.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or email@example.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom.