Judy Clibborn, Chair of the Transportation Committee in the State House
  • Judy Clibborn, Chair of the Transportation Committee in the State House
A quorum of the Seattle City Council stood side-by-side with Eastside legislators and suburban officials this morning to demand that the 520 bridge project move forward.

“It is time to put over a decade of planning behind us,” said Bellevue City Council Member Grant Degginger. “It is time to begin construction.” Richard Conlin, the president of Seattle’s city council, concurred.

But critics say that beginning construction on the east side of the bridge would commit Seattle to an unworkable plan for the west side. The state recommended in November that we replace the four-lane span with a six-lane bridge and build a second drawbridge across the nearby Montlake cut to handle all the extra traffic. The two new lanes would hold carpools and buses. This is called Option A+. (Problems with this arrangement and alternatives are described here.)

“It will lock us into to a six-lane highway and not getting the transit we should,” said Mayor Mike McGinn, reached by phone after the press conference. “The council says they oppose this A+ option, but today they are standing with people who support A+.”

In other words, the council is forming a coalition with forces that will make the council's goals—Seattle's goals—impossible.

"We have endorsed the A+option," said Lee Newgent, Executive Secretary of the Seattle Building and Trades council, flanked by the Seattle City Council. "We think that is the best option."

That plan is widely detested by Seattle representatives who weren't at the press conference. A huge group of citizen leaders and elected officials, Coalition for a Sustainable 520, announced a campaign on Monday to oppose the state's plan because it would dump more cars into an already-congested choke point in Montlake. They called for light rail to be built in the two new lanes and for the west side to be integrated with transit. Building light rail may not be possible this late in the game—but the city can get a west-side interchange that connects with the planned light-rail station at Husky Stadium and change parts of the bridge design.

All five of the council members at the press conference (Conlin, Sally Clark, Tom Rasmussen, Jean Godden, and Tim Burgess) oppose the state's preferred option, too—at least in theory—saying that the west side of the bridge needs to connect to transit and be completely reconfigured. They simply believe that Seattle can still influence the bridge's design after construction starts.

However, the council's past position seems to conflict with realistic outcomes if construction begins.

After the jump: Conlin and State Rep. Clibborn don't know how to pay for the changes Seattle wants.

In a letter sent by the council last week, they requested “reducing the height of the crosslake bridge structure from the thirty feet in the current plans” and “optimizing transit connectivity and functionality across the entire SR 520 corridor, along Montlake boulevard, and the vicinity of the Multimodal Center on the University of Washington campus”

And on his blog last week, Burgess said, “I personally believe that the two additional lanes—lanes five and six—should be limited to transit only from the start.”

But this raises two questions:

1: How can the council achieve design changes to “transit connectivity and functionality across the entire SR 520 corridor” or reducing the height of the bridge after breaking ground? (State House Transportation Committee Chair Judy Clibborn says construction could begin “tomorrow.”) Logically, changes to the entire span would be impossible after it’s already being built. By saying we should begin construction now—before Seattle’s issue are resolved—the council is essentially giving up on those two requests.

2: How does the city change the dysfunctional west side interchange while staying within the project’s budget? The state has capped the whole project's budget at $4.65 billion; the west side at $2 billion. Other options studied by the state—such as the one preferred by Conlin—are $2.5 billion or more.

How could Seattle’s accomplish its more expensive goals for the west side—mitigating traffic, connecting to the light rail station, etc.—with less money than estimates say we need?

“We are not sure,” says Conlin. And how does state transportation chair Clibborn think the Seattle side of the bridge could be worked out given the money we have? “I don’t have an answer,” she says.

In lieu of an explanation about where money would come from to change the design in Seattle--or any ability to change the rest of the design--Seattle's council leaders would realistically forgo any influence over the project. If the council gets its way, the state will get what it wants, and Seattle will be stuck with a wider freeway.

"I think all the supporters of A+ are pushing to begin construction now because they want to lock in the design," says McGinn. He says the council members "need to decide whether they are supporting an expanded highway or supporting transit."