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October 20, 2009 at 9:25 PM

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Hutchison: Light rail should go on 520, not I-90

Posted by Mike Lindblom

This post has been updated:

Light-rail tracks should be built across a future Highway 520 bridge instead of on I-90 express lanes, according to King County executive candidate Susan Hutchison.

If elected King County executive, Hutchison would hold one of 18 Sound Transit board seats, and appoint several other members as their terms expire. She said she would raise the 520 issue as soon as she is seated on the board. "It's worth talking about, worth analyzing, worth having a public dialogue," she said.

"I just happen to believe it's a better routing, and because it's a new bridge we can place a designated lane on 520 specifically for light rail, without taking lanes from I-90," she said Tuesday night.

The I-90 alignment -- from downtown Seattle through the International District and Mercer Island to downtown Bellevue -- is part of the $18 billion Sound Transit expansion plan voters approved last fall.

Hutchison has told The Seattle Times repeatedly in interviews that she supports a Seattle-Bellevue light-rail connection.

Her opponent in the executive's race, County Council Chair Dow Constantine, is on the Sound Transit board and has portrayed Hutchison as anti-transit.

Constantine campaign spokesman Sandeep Kaushik said Tuesday, "Even if you assume she is being sincere about this, it is a recipe for paralysis and failure, and it runs directly counter to the voters in King County."

Hutchison replies that with political leadership, a 520 route is possible.

"It seems to me the 520 option is a stronger option, but I'm not dogmatic, and I will defer in the long run to the best analysis available to us," she said.

Although many citizens would like rail on 520, to provide a direct east-west connection from the University District to Bellevue and Microsoft, a policy switch of that enormity could delay Sound Transit.

Engineering is underway to design the I-90 crossing; a major technical challenge is how to keep the train wheels on track at the points where fixed bridge spans meet the floating pontoons.

The state is far short of funding a new 520 crossing that would cost at least $4 billion, and adding rail would increase the price. Sound Transit officials have also said a 520 connection could overwhelm its future light-rail tunnel capacity for trains entering downtown from Capitol Hill, perhaps requiring another tunnel or a train-to-train transfer.

On the other hand, Gov. Chris Gregoire has called for a 520 bridge to be designed so it could be retrofitted to add a rail corridor, far in the future.

Light rail won 60.5 percent support within King County, in last year's ballot measure.

Constantine mentions that Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, a longtime rail opponent, has contributed to Hutchison. Freeman also is part of a lawsuit seeking to block trains on I-90.

Hutchison said in a KOMO debate Saturday night: "The lawsuit about light rail going across I-90 is not against light rail. It's against using roads money to build light rail. In fact, it's a violation of the 18th Amendment, which says that roads money can't be used for any other purpose. As so, I think as you keep repeating this, Mr. Constantine, we need to remember that you're changing the subject from the issue, which is we've got a lot of problems in this county, and you are largely responsible for the financial crisis that we're in."

A 1976 memorandum of agreement for the I-90 bridge called for transit in the express lanes, and a possible "fixed guideway" retrofit. A 2004 update. called for "high-capacity transit" in the center lanes, along with a pair of added carpool lanes in the main roadways.

Nonetheless, the governor has demanded compensation by Sound Transit for use of the state-owned bridge; price studies and negotiations are underway.

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Jim Brunner
Covers politics.

Keith Ervin
Covers the Eastside.

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Covers politics and state government from Olympia.

Emily Heffter
Covers local government.

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Lynn Thompson
Covers Seattle City Hall.

Bob Young
Covers King County and urban affairs.