City Hall

Seattle's Preferred 520 Alignment Unlikely to Win Support in Olympia

By Erica C. Barnett February 1, 2010

Proponents of a smaller, six-lane, transit-centric 520 bridge across Lake Washington, organized as the Coalition for a Sustainable 520, described their proposal  in optimistic terms at a press conference in Montlake this morning.

But behind the scenes, supporters of the plan acknowledged that it was unlikely to get off the ground. And state House transportation chair Judy Clibborn said flatly that she would oppose any effort to jettison the state's preferred option to replace the bridge.

This morning, Seattle neighborhood groups and legislators—including City Council members Nick Licata and Mike O'Brien, all three representatives of the 43rd legislative district (Reps. Frank Chopp and Jamie Pedersen and Sen. Ed Murray), Mayor Mike McGinn, and representatives of the neighborhoods surrounding the west side of the bridge—came out in favor of a six-lane bridge replacement with smaller on-ramps than the state option, less impact on the Arboretum, and two lanes dedicated exclusively to high-capacity transit (bus-rapid transit now, rails installed now for light rail later).

"The mayor and city council now stand united against the current option that’s on the table," said Chopp, citing a letter from the city council to Gov. Chris Gregoire encouraging the state to consider changes to its bridge proposal.

McGinn echoed Chopp's statement: "I’ve had conversations with ... council members and the areas of unity are very clear: Opposition to [the six-lane/HOV option] and support for transit and protection of the Arboretum."

However, Clibborn was adamant this afternoon that the proposal "can't go forward." First, she said, a new bridge design would require the state to do an entirely new environmental review, setting the project back two years or more. Second, she said the new option would be more expensive than the state's current preferred alignment, particularly because "there's no money for rail" across 520. Finally, she said, "you can’t stop this project at this point without losing huge amounts of time, which is money and jobs."

Transit proponents argue that transit-only lanes are superior to HOV lanes, because HOV lanes allow buses to get stuck in traffic. Clibborn, however, claimed that HOV lanes accomplish the same goal as light rail or bus-only lanes for far less money. "If at some point the buses are slowed down, you have two options: You can go to four-plus HOV [restricted to carpools of four or more], or you can say it's now time to switch over" to bus-only lanes, Clibborn said.

Even some city and state lawmakers at today's event expressed doubt that legislators would pay attention to their proposal. "The likelihood is not very strong" that legislators will agree to revisit the bridge's size and alignment, Murray said. "I haven't seen a lot of opportunity among my colleagues."

State legislators and Mayor McGinn cited the council's letter to Gov. Gregoire as evidence that the council is on board with the coalition's proposal.  However, both O'Brien and Licata acknowledged that the council is only interested in resolving design problems with the state's preferred option, not revisiting the entire 520 planning process. Clibborn, in fact, spun the council's letter as a "letter of support," noting that it opposed any steps that would delay 520 construction.

Asked what message the city council hoped to send with its letter to Gregoire, O'Brien said, "The letter was broad enough that it's not exactly clear what the council is saying. Everyone on the city council in Seattle believes we should be making more investments in transit… The question is, what is the path to get there in Olympia? I don’t know that we have an answer to that."

Finally , I asked McGinn if his support for the transit-heavy 520, which is expected to be more expensive than the current preferred alternative, was related to his opposition to the $4.2 billion Alaskan Way tunnel. (One theory is that McGinn's conspiring with Chopp, who also opposes the tunnel, to transfer funding from the tunnel to 520). He said no.  "I love that everyone thinks I have all these grand schemes. Sometimes a seawall is just a seawall."
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