Saturday, January 30, 2010

The new 520: What are they thinking?

When he was a newly-minted, wet-behind-the-ears civil engineer employed by Seattle’s public works department, former Washington Governor Daniel Evans worked on the Alaskan Way Viaduct project. That gray monolithic artery is now, of course, regarded as such a monstrosity and egregious planning error that it naturally raises the question: “What were they thinking?”

That very question was recently put to the former Governor by an enterprising KPLU reporter when she interviewed Evans about his support for the Viaduct replacement tunnel. His matter-of-fact response was that what they were thinking about was solving a problem: getting traffic moved through Seattle quickly in the absence of any alternative road (I-5 was not built through downtown until more than a decade later). According to Evans, the engineers and public officials working on the project were focused on getting the job done (which they accomplished) and he can’t remember anyone complaining about the waterfront location, which he describes as having been a blighted area.

Flash forward more than a half century and we now have another civil engineering dilemma: how to safely meet the cross-Lake transportation needs of our growing community. Are we getting ready to repeat the mistakes that were made with the Alaskan Way Viaduct? Will residents of Seattle and the Eastside be asking “What were they thinking?” sixty years from now?

According to the opponents, that question will not have to await the verdict of future generations—at least not if the proposed Option A+ is implemented without revision. It will be obvious as soon as the thing is put in place, they say, that this was a tragic blunder—a project wasting of billions of dollars while incurring environmental havoc, creating visual blight, and not even solving the basic transportation problems the new 520 is supposedly designed to ameliorate.

Sounds harsh, but there you have it in a nutshell: the main objections to Option A+. If you’re interested, however, in the rationale in favor of the plan, you can check out the State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) website, which has the complete supplemental draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for Option A+ available here. I’ve read it--or, rather, its 66-page executive summary—so that you don’t have to wade through it unless you are so inclined.

But first, some background.

If you’re like me, you probably haven’t been paying that much attention to the fact that the 520 bridge, which opened in 1963, is nearing the end of its useful life. WSDOT gives the bridge 10 to 15 more years. The need for a replacement is based both on the bridge’s structural insufficiency and the growing transportation needs of the region. It was designed to accommodate 65,000 daily vehicles when it opened and is now estimated to be handling over 115,000 vehicles per day. As we all know, it is often clogged with traffic. Additionally, the bridge is potentially unsafe in high winds and is subject to possible collapse during an earthquake (as graphically portrayed in this WSDOT simulation). I don’t think anyone is suggesting that the bridge should not be replaced. The issue is: with what?

The State, in conjunction with the Federal Highway Administration, plans to replace it with a new bridge that will be located 190 feet north of the existing structure. Construction on the floating bridge portion of the project is scheduled to begin in 2012 and be completed in 2014. The remaining changes to 520 would be completed—if they are funded and the project remains on schedule—by 2018. That’s six years of construction or more, principally impacting the Montlake neighborhood.

The cost of the project, which includes a new interchange at Montlake and a new bridge approach through Portage Bay and over Foster Island, is estimated at between $4.5 and $4.8 billion dollars, with $4.65 billion budgeted to date. The State has yet to identify how it will meet the anticipated $2.66 billion difference between funding sources (including tolls) and the total cost of the highway project.

Although the recently released supplemental draft EIS reviews three possible configurations for the project, a Legislative Work Group has already recommended to the Governor and Legislature that Plan A+ be adopted. As noted in a previous posting, this plan involves a second drawbridge at Montlake and a six-lane floating bridge.

As laid out in the EIS, here are the advantages of this bridge design (in addition, of course, to making the bridge structurally safe):

· The addition to two HOV lanes will reduce or eliminate congestion

· Landscape lids over portions of the highway will “reconnect neighborhoods”

· Pedestrians and cyclists will be able to cross the Lake on new pathways

· Stormwater treatment facilities will be installed for the first time

· Greeenhouse gas omissions will be reduced due to less standing on roadway.

The EIS summarizes the history of the planning process for the bridge, noting that both a four-lane and an eight-lane alternative had been considered. The four-lane replacement was rejected because it would not meet the goal of improving traffic flow. The eight-lane option, meanwhile, was considered impractical in terms of connections to both I-5 and I-405.

Here are some of the principal downsides of the new bridge, as identified in the EIS:

· The Montlake freeway transit station is eliminated, forcing riders to change current travel routes

· Tolling, which will be electronic, will force a hardship on those with low incomes (tolling on 520 will begin in 2011, before the new bridge is even under construction)

· Parkland will be eliminated (5.5 acres or more) due to the larger footprint of 520

· “Visual quality” will be impacted (though the report does not actually say negatively)

· Traffic noise is expected to increase in some areas, even if noise-abatement walls or “quiet asphalt” are installed

· Some wetlands will be filled in and other wetlands will be shaded

· A sockeye salmon spawning area will potentially be eliminated

· Fishing areas utilized by the Muckelshoot Indian Tribe may be adversely impacted

· Vessels over 70 feet high will no longer be able to pass through the bridge due to elimination of the draw span

· Changes to the west approach to the bridge will affect the experience of boaters and park users in the Arboretum.

With surprising understatement, the EIS notes that “broad public and political consensus has not been reached in support of this (Option A+) recommendation.”

That’s for sure. Fran Conley, coordinator of the Coalition for a Sustainable SR 520, has this to say about the WSDOT’s efforts: "It is now clear that the intention is to build a highway looking back into the 20th century instead of a transportation system for the 21st century. After years of working cooperatively with the state, all of our communities are now unalterably opposed to the current proposals." The representative of the Roanoke Park/Portage Bay community, Ted Lane, goes further, stating “this process has been a charade.” And Madison Park's representative to the Coalition, Maurice Cooper, calls the new floating bridge design "that prison wall across the Lake."

The Coalition objects to many of WSDOT’s assumptions about the bridge replacement, including the idea that a safety fix could not be undertaken on the existing bridge at an economical cost. But the biggest issues for opponents are the doubling of the width of the bridge corridor, the addition of a second drawbridge at Montlake (rather than a tunnel), and the “unnecessary” height and profile of both the Westside approach and the new floating bridge itself.

The Coalition notes that the proposed new bridge is actually almost 150% wider than the old bridge, sits 30 feet above the water across Lake Washington (“as tall as a three-story building”), and does not properly incorporate mass-transit options into the mix. As noted in an article in the Seattle Times today, opponents of Option A+ are now pushing for the new HOV lanes to be used by buses only or for a shared bus-rail corridor. In other words, the State should not be encouraging more car use on the revamped bridge but focus rather on mass-transit options.

With regard to the visual impact of the floating bridge itself, the Coalition states that the height can be reduced without negatively impacting the integrity of the structure. Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond is quoted in the Times’ article as saying that WSDOT engineers are now looking at ways to cut the bridge height to 20 feet.

Why a higher bridge was ever thought necessary was not addressed by Hammond, however. And it may well be that the engineers, just as in Dan Evans' day, simply designed the new bridge with utility rather than aesthetics in mind. In the case of 520, the goals were to have the new bridge be high enough to keep waves from blowing onto the roadway while still allowing room for worker access to the brdige deck from underneath. Now, apparently as a result of public criticism, the engineers are back at their drawing boards. It raises the question: what other changes are possible to WSDOT’s current plans as a result of public pressure?
I guess we’ll find out.

Here are some ways you can give input to the process during the comment period, which ends March 8: 1) you can comment by mail to Jenifer Young, Environmental Manager, SR 520 Project Office, 600 Stewart Street, Suite 520, Seattle, WA 98101, 2) you can email your comments to, or 3) you can comment online here.

You can also attend the Environmental Hearing and Public Open House which will be held February 23 at the Lake Union Naval Reserve Building (860 Terry Avenue N.) from 5 to 7pm.

Meanwhile, the City Council has just gone on record asking for a 120-day delay in the decision-making process, and opponents of Option A+ and “the massive high bridge across the Lake” have scheduled a press conference for Monday morning at which they will be presenting their position. City and State politicians are expected to be in attendance. The event will be held at the intersection of East Miller Street and Lake Washington Boulevard East, in the green space immediately north of the parking lot (near the "ramps to nowhere"), just south of 520 where the Arboretum and Montlake join. The Coalition requests that opponents turn out for the press conference to show their solidarity.
[Upper photo: SR 520 at Foster Island from Google Earth 2009. Middle graphic: configuration of new floating bridge from WSDOT. Lower graphic: configuration of Option A+ showing interchanges and western approach from WSDOT.]

1 comment:

  1. It is possible that the bridge design is for a 30-foot height to accommodate NOAA ships that must pass through the cut.

    What is missing from this column is any discussion of what the A+ opponents are proposing as an alternative to A+. As I understand it, there are some very serious problems with what they are proposing.

    Some of the critics (eg the mayor) have proposed a six-lane bridge with two of the lanes being bus-only. There also will be pedestrian and bicycle paths and shoulders (for accidents). By the time you add these two bus lanes, the pedestrian and bicycle paths and the shoulders, you are talking about a larger footprint. So the larger footprint seems inevitable unless you stick with the status quo. And that's not particularly atractive in that there currently are no provisions for pedestrians or bicycles, for accidents or for buses. Buses are stuck in traffic. Hard to think of a more transit-unfriendly solution than the status quo.

    Some of the neighbors are proposing a tunnel rather than an added bascule bridge. The feds won't permit that and it is unaffordable. That doesn't stop the neighbors from insisting on it, though.

    So let's be honest when we discuss the 520 project and admit that all of the proposals --those of WSDOT and the legislative committee as well as those of the neighbors and environmentalists -- have pluses and minuses.


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