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Originally published Monday, December 11, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnists

A green alternative for Highway 520

A six-lane Highway 520 floating bridge? Get real! The Washington State Department of Transportation's two six-lane alternatives will cost...

Special to The Times

A six-lane Highway 520 floating bridge? Get real! The Washington State Department of Transportation's two six-lane alternatives will cost at least $3.9 billion or $4.38 billion, by early estimates. Even its way-overbuilt four-lane option is nearly $3 billion. The Governor's Expert Review Panel says the money just isn't there.

We offer a doubly-green alternative that's fundable — less than $2 billion — and good for our ecology, neighborhoods and transportation choices. It's safer, too: Quick construction will address storms, earthquakes and crashes, sooner. Our plan would include:

• A four-lane floating bridge accommodating more traffic, with wider lanes and shoulders than the current span;

• Five or six lanes over Portage Bay — three of them HOV and one of the three reversible to the Interstate 5 express lanes downtown;

• Intermittent safety shoulders ("bulb-outs");

• A rush-hour, northbound bus lane on the I-5 shoulder from Olive Way in downtown Seattle;

• Priority for buses and high-occupancy vehicles on nearby streets and ramps;

• Permanent closure of the Arboretum ramps;

• No widening of Montlake Boulevard Northeast and Northeast Pacific Street;

• Keeping the HOV lane on Pacific and the bus "flyer" stops on Highway 520.

In contrast to our span, which, with the required bike-pedestrian lane, would be 74 feet wide in most places, WSDOT proposes lanes and shoulders on the 520 floating bridge that are wider than on I-5, I-90 or I-405.

Our "Green Alternative" saves on size, but it will be easier and safer to drive on than the current bridge, which is 60 feet wide in most places. It won't get as tied up when accidents occur, and intermittent shoulders won't be sitting ducks for conversion to traffic lanes, as typically happens to continuous "safety" shoulders.

The Green Alternative incorporates features that move people, such as maintaining the flyer stops on 520 and the HOV lane on Pacific — unlike one of the six-lane alternatives.

Metro says an HOV-lane connection to the I-5 express lanes would do as much for buses as expensive (and, we note, unneeded) new HOV lanes on the floating bridge.

Already, a third of westbound morning travelers are in 5 percent of the vehicles — aided by the HOV lanes just east of the bridge. Ramp metering and tolls will favor buses and car pools and keep bridge traffic moving.

In addition to the new capacity on 520 from the Green Alternative, motorists will be getting plenty more just to the south. On the I-90 bridge, there will be light rail, and — now in progress — restriping, to add two lanes to the current eight and to make the HOV lanes two-way.

WSDOT's environmental-impact statement on 520 is deeply flawed. It caricatures four-lane solutions while ignoring the Green Alternative, and the new capacity on I-90.

Using outmoded models and standards, it understates the six-lane alternatives' air and water pollution, energy waste, noise, shadow effects, and harm to views, wetlands and salmon. There's little about major increases in local traffic, or the years of longer construction, including all-night operations and thousands of truck trips.

Seattle's Climate Action Plan, recognizing that increased driving has the worst impact on our climate, calls for reducing miles traveled.

Even in the passionate debate over the Alaskan Way Viaduct, no one is proposing adding lanes. No such luck with Highway 520. Deal with it: Not adding lanes is an essential step to reducing global warming.

Seattle has no equal in its Arboretum and lagoons — centrally located educational and recreational assets. This fragile ecosystem must not become an afterthought. And Lake Washington Boulevard — not even designed for cars — must not become even more of an access route for Highway 520.

The Olmsted Brothers oriented the University of Washington's campus to frame Mount Rainier, not a high bridge or sprawling interchange at Union Bay. As the university architect said in a 1967 court challenge to the similarly routed, ill-fated R.H. Thomson expressway:

"The common commode can be a very graceful and beautiful article; however, one would not put it in the middle of his living room. I make a direct comparison with it and a structure of this kind in the middle of the Arboretum."

Our connecting roads and freeways can't take the added traffic. Already, Highway 520 gets grief for congestion originating at I-5 and I-405.

Six lanes, like the rejected eight-lane alternative, would overwhelm freeways and local streets. Extra lanes — widths of 158 feet over Portage Bay and 419 feet over Union Bay, dwarfing what is there today — would make 520 the world's most expensive parking lot.

Furthermore, more lanes would be built on Montlake Boulevard, Pacific, and possibly 25th Avenue Northeast and Sand Point Way Northeast, sacrificing trees and dividing the UW campus and one neighborhood from another.

With these fatal flaws in WSDOT's four- and six-lane alternatives, will the governor, legislators and local government leaders heed the more balanced and affordable Green Alternative?

Virginia Gunby (vgunby@aol.com) co-founded FutureWise and served on the Washington State Transportation Commission. Chris Leman is co-author of "Rethinking HOV" and chairs the board of NoExpansionofSR520.org

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