If the Arboretum gets its way, the number of cars using Lake Washington Boulevard to transit the Park each day will be reduced by as much as 80%. And when it comes to traffic mitigation, what the Arboretum wants, the Arboretum may very well get. Frankly, the Park’s recent track record on this issue, though not widely heralded, has been pretty impressive.
Among the various constituencies of the Coalition for a Sustainable 520 (that amalgam of interested communities and interest groups, which includes Madison Park’s community council), the Arboretum was, in fact, the only immediate winner when the Governor last spring announced her new “Preferred Alternative” for 520. Rejecting the previous Option A+ Plan crafted by a legislative workgroup, the Governor eliminated the Arboretum on/off ramps from the design for the west-side approach to the new floating bridge. This, as we earlier reported, means that there will be no Arboretum off ramp from 520 beginning in 2012 (based on the current construction schedule) and no Arboretum on ramp to 520 beginning in 2015. The permanent elimination of the on/off ramps was what the Arboretum had argued for—and it’s what the Arboretum achieved.
But that’s hardly the end of the story. The Governor also mandated that the State Department of Transportation work with the City and the Arboretum to develop a “traffic management plan” that reduces the impact of cars on the Park. That’s something else the Arboretum wanted and got.
But what exactly does “traffic management” of Lake Washington Boulevard mean? I went right to the top to find out. In a narrow-ranging interview with Arboretum Foundation Director Paige Miller earlier this summer, I asked her what ideas were being debated for re-routing traffic and what kind of process will take place for developing a new traffic plan for the Arboretum.
With regard to the Arboretum’s traffic reduction objective, Miller did not mince words: “Our goal is to slow down traffic and discourage people from using the Arboretum as a through route.” And where will the traffic that now uses the Arboretum go? Miller is clear on that as well: “People should be encouraged to use 23rd Avenue E., which is a four-lane City arterial street and not an Olmsted Boulevard.” Her Olmsted reference, which is perhaps a bit obscure to some, comes from the fact that the City’s boulevards—developed in the early 1900s by the Olmsted Brothers—were intended to be parkways linking the City’s parks. When they were designed and built they were not intended to be major conveyors of through-traffic. But in the case of Lake Washington Boulevard, at least in its Arboretum portion, that’s exactly what it has become.
The City estimates that 18,000 cars drive through the Arboretum on average each day. Of these, according to Miller, about 10,000 vehicles access the 520 on or off ramps. She notes that the Boulevard—which was designed to handle only 4,000 cars per day—is only a two-lane road, while the four-lane arterial through Montlake also processes about 20,000 cars on average per day. By implication, improvements to 23rd and 24th Avenues E. could easily increase access to Montlake. To keep people from using the Arboretum in order to enter or exit 520, “we need to make sure that the logical route is to turn at 23rd,” Miller told me. “The Montlake Corridor ought to have the capacity of taking more cars than the Arboretum does.”
In order to encourage that northbound turn off of E. Madison Street and onto 23rd, Miller proposes to make the left-turn light there longer and to have the City lengthen the turn lane to accommodate more cars. Miller also wants the City to investigate ways to improve bus usage in that corridor.
But there are other ways of discouraging Arboretum use which are also under serious discussion. Miller prefers to call these “traffic calming measures” rather than traffic management schemes, but here are the major ones:
--putting a toll on cars using the Arboretum to access 520
--reducing speed limits through the Arboretum
--increasing the number of pedestrian crossings
--introducing speed monitors to tell drivers their cars’ speed
--placing a stop sign at the Boyer Avenue intersection
Miller says that no decisions have been made, but the planning process is underway. She believes that the Arboretum and Botanical Garden Committee (ABGC) has been given jurisdiction by the State to develop the traffic plan for the Arboretum. The ABGC is composed of the Arboretum Foundation, Seattle Parks Department, and the University of Washington, and it jointly operates the Arboretum. The ABGC will be meeting this week (on Wednesday, August 18 from 8:00 am until 12:00 pm in the Graham Visitors Center in the Arboretum), and one of the items on the agenda will be “traffic calming and management in the Arboretum.” That discussion is expected to get started at about 9:30 and last for around 90 minutes, for those interested in attending.
Just to put the issue into perspective for those of us who use the Arboretum for something other than nature viewing, note that Miller is on record testifying to the Seattle City Council in April that the Arboretum would like to see the number of cars coming through the Park each day limited to about 4,000. That’s an almost 80% reduction from the estimated level of traffic flowing through the Arboretum today. To get to that number, a lot of cars are clearly going to have to go somewhere else—or not go at all.
Miller certainly is not apologetic about what she admits might be an unobtainable ideal. “You have to have a goal,” she told me. “Lake Washington Boulevard was meant to be a leisurely parkway and not a long on and off ramp for 520.” On her watch, she said, she intends to fight for the Arboretum as the urban oasis it was intended to be, not a place that’s convenient for people to “just zip through.”