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Originally published June 17, 2012 at 7:00 PM | Page modified June 17, 2012 at 8:58 PM

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Highway 520 bridge in Montlake may ride on federal loan

The proposal for the so-called "lake to land" segment of the Highway 520 bridge has inflamed neighborhood activists. They abhor the idea of bringing six lanes of traffic to Montlake before there is money to construct the parklike lids over the highway pledged in the whole $4.65 billion project.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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Washington state is closing in on a deal for a $320 million federal loan to start building a currently unfunded segment of the Highway 520 bridge project from the floating pontoons to the Montlake exit.

Without it, westbound drivers would spend years dealing with a pinch point where the new six-lane roadway, expected to be finished by the end of 2014, would suddenly narrow to meet the old four-lane section at the existing west high rise.

The work would allow the state to replace at least part of a vulnerable section of the 1963 bridge where hollow columns might break in an earthquake, state officials say.

But the proposal for the so-called "lake to land" segment has inflamed neighborhood activists. They abhor the idea of bringing six lanes of traffic to Montlake before there is money to construct the parklike lids over the highway pledged in the whole $4.65 billion project.

"The whole situation is preposterous, and the state has bitten off more than it can chew," said Jonathan Dubman, a member of the Coalition for a Sustainable 520.

Among other problems, the proposal would require that construction of the highway across Foster Island be completed in two phases, rather than one, causing more environmental damage, Dubman said.

The whole crossing could be built at once, and relieve the earthquake risk years sooner, if the state would simply scale the entire bridge down to four lanes, he said. A four-lane bridge could handle the amount of traffic expected under congestion-based tolls, Dubman said.

Victor Mendez, head of the Federal Highway Administration, said his department is working on a loan for the bridge that could be finalized if Congress breaks a deadlock by June 30 on a national transportation bill.

He is requesting $500 million a year for the Transportation Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act, four times the current level.

Currently, there is far more demand for the federal loans than money available. Last year, Highway 520 was among 34 projects whose sponsors asked for a total of $14 billion in aid.

If the feds deliver, the Washington State Department of Transportation intends to:

• Build the three-lane westbound portion and bike trail from the floating section of the bridge to Montlake. There, one lane would exit near Montlake and two would continue on the existing roadway to I-5.

• Demolish the old exit from westbound 520 to southbound Lake Washington Boulevard.

• Remove the center divider from the old highway, so three lanes of eastbound traffic could use it from Montlake to the new pontoon bridge.

• When more money arrives, build permanent eastbound lanes, after 2016. (The final highway is designed to be split across Foster Island.)

During that phase, traffic going east on the old bridge would likely be detoured onto the new northern structure, so two lanes would flow each direction.

Buses would use a flyer stop at Montlake, similar to now, said state DOT spokesman Jeff Switzer.

The loan would be repaid long-term though driver tolls.

Washington state could sell more bonds with help from a federally backed loan than it can by simply pledging toll income, which history has shown to be volatile.

The state can finance about $2.7 billion in construction with help from the federal program, and only $2.45 billion without. That's because toll bonds with federal backing can sell at 3.75 percent interest compared to 5 to 7 percent backed by tolls alone, said Amy Arnis, chief financial officer for Washington DOT. Bridge debt would last until 2056, Arnis said.

To complete the 520 crossing, the state would need to collect tolls on nearby I-90 or raise additional money from gas taxes, vehicle fees or some other sources.

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

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