Monday, February 8, 2010

520: where to from here?

It’s been a pretty eventful week since the opponents of the State’s current SR 520 plan held their press conference in the Arboretum last Monday. For those who haven’t been paying close attention to the issue, here’s a summary of what’s been happening, as well as a brief look ahead:

As you may recall, the opponents--including all of our 43rd District legislators, the Mayor, two City Council members, and a coalition of the immediately affected Seattle neighborhoods—are opposed both to the Option A+ design for the Westside approaches and to the design of the high-and-wide floating bridge that the State is planning to build, beginning in 2012. Fran Conley, coordinator of the Coalition for a Sustainable 520, summed the opponents’ views by arguing that the State should not be designing a transportation system for the 21st Century while using the outmoded transportation concepts of the 1950s. Opponents want a delay to the process and a redesign of the project that allows for only high-density transit (buses and potentially light rail) in the two addition lanes which will be added to the 520 corridor. And they want the height of the new floating bridge (currently designed to rise 30 feet above the water line) lowered significantly.

The opponents got a fair amount of publicity for their position during the week--as well as an immediate reaction from Governor Gregoire, who issued a statement declaring that delay and redesign of 520 were unacceptable. "Changing the configuration now would require a new environmental process,” she wrote. “The office of the Attorney General tells us that revising these decisions from several years ago would set the project back at least 18 to 24 months. Our commitment to ensuring public safety does not allow that kind of delay."

Eastside legislative and city officials then piled on, telling the media that the issue of 520 has been studied for many years and that the six-lane concept advocated by the state’s Department of Transportation (WSDOT) must move forward without delay. At this point, leaders of the transportation committees in the state legislature added their voices to the no-delay chorus. Finally, as if to add insult to injury, five members of the Seattle City Council (who just days earlier had signed a letter to the Governor asking for delay), stood shoulder to shoulder with the Eastside public officials to voice their opposition to delay. Mayor McGinn, for one, found their about face confounding.

All of this might lead you to believe that the opponents would be packing it in and licking their wounds. But not so. I talked to Fran Conley today (that’s Fran in the photo below, taken at last Monday’s press conference), and she actually believes that the anti Coalition is gaining momentum.

“For one thing,” she said, “we are raising awareness.” She noted that the lack of leadership by Seattle's ex-mayor, Greg Nichols, was devastating to the process, which has been very influenced by those suburban politicians who have taken a leadership role. The citizens of Seattle have not been represented and have not been informed, she believes. This is changing.

Though she hopes for a quick resolution though the political process which will result in a new 520 design, she noted that there is another option which might prove necessary. “We are hoping to avoid legal action,” she told me, “but we have funding and we have hired a lawyer.” I asked her if she envisions a legal battle like the one that Mercer Island residents waged against I-90 in the last century. She’s hoping it doesn’t come to anything like that, she said, but she nevertheless sounded determined to do what's necessary to stop the State from building the six-lane 520 as currently proposed.
Next up on the agenda is the Coalition's response to the supplemental draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project issued last month by WSDOT. Public comments are being accepted through March 8, and the Governor has stated her intent to approve the configuration for 520 by the end of April. It's anticipated that the EIS will be finalized by the end of the year. If it is accepted, if the Governor approves the design, and if the legislature funds the program, court action may be the only recourse for the opponents.
But at least one thing is clear about the process: it ain't over.
[Graphic above, taken from the supplemental draft EIS by WSDOT, shows the height of the new floating bridge relative to the old bridge.]

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