Turns out Erica's not the only one around here who gets to chat it up on the 7th floor of City Hall. For a city hall newbie like me, it's a still totally surreal to hang out in the office of the mayor of a major U.S. city, but last week there I was, getting into it with Mike McGinn on the SR-520 bridge.
There is no end to the debate over the minutiae of the various options and configurations for the 520 bridge—the weeds are thick. And there our conversation began, discussing whether the addition of ten feet of bridge width to accommodate light rail would create a risk that the bridge could be re-striped for eight general purpose (car) lanes. McGinn argued that building eight lanes on the bridge would create a bottleneck on the west side of the bridge, where 520 would narrow down to six lanes, making an eight-lane bridge infeasible. He also questioned the viability of a center merge if the light rail ramps ended up being used by cars. Like I said: weeds.
But when it comes to projects like 520 bridge that will shape urban development patterns for better or worse over the long term, it's best not to let the weeds obscure the big picture. McGinn didn't need much encouragement to go there, and that's when the conversation (sorry for the lack of quotes—like I said, I was a bit wide-eyed) got compelling.
From above the weeds, it is blindingly obvious to any informed, rational observer that we must stop trying to achieve our transportation goals by throwing more pavement at the problem. And by pushing back on a highly visible project like the 520-bridge, McGinn said, his aim is to help the public see and understand what is going on, and let them decide.
When I mentioned that some question that the wisdom of taking on 520 when there are so many other, potentially more winnable battles to fight, McGinn said he sees 520 as just one piece of a much broader and longer effort to foment the cultural and institutional sea change that reality demands.
Re-sparking the debate over 520, McGinn continued, is a strategy to tap into the power of public opinion, which McGinn contends favors progressive urbanism more than most politicians do. This view is supported by a recent poll showing that a slim majority of Seattleites favor taking more time to to plan for how the 520 bridge could accommodate light rail. Even if the current six-lane 520 plan goes forward, the exposure will at least help more people become aware of the kinds of choices leaders are making, the end goal being that it becomes a factor in future elections. It's a strategy to close the sustainability gap.
The 520 bridge off in the distance (click image to enlarge)
Perhaps most importantly, McGinn's perspective forces this question: Why are we incapable of even considering radical, transformational solutions for the 520 bridge?
A range of powerful forces—climate change, peak oil, strained personal and municipal budgets, and evolving demographics and cultural preferences—are all aligned against the continued reign of car culture. And already, travel data reveal an unprecedented shift: Since 2003, the number of miles Washington State residents drive each year has declined by seven percent. Spending our limited public funds on massive, Eisenhower-style car infrastructure projects is like flushing it down the toilet.
Still, many state leaders argue that because we already spent time and money planning the 520 bridge it's too late to change now, even if those plans will leave us with a liability for the next century. It's no exaggeration to say that climate change is the most serious environmental crisis in the history of humanity. Does our situation not call for radical action?
Here are few examples of 520 bridge alternatives that a society not in denial might be expected to at least consider:
• keep the existing freeway between the water and I-5 (it's the floating part that's the safety risk)
• for a six-lane design, designate two transit lanes, two HOV lanes, and two general purpose lanes
• for a four-lane design, designate two HOV/transit lanes and two general purpose lanes
• for a four-lane design, limit use to transit and HOV only
• and how about the most radical solution of all: take the bridge out and don't replace it?
If we can't even bring ourselves to seriously discuss such options, then we truly are in a world of trouble.