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Gene and Liz Brandzel, an elderly Jewish couple who live in a Madison Park apartment, held balloons on lengths of string that reached the ceiling of the Naval Reserve Building in South Lake Union. The string was 40 feet long, because the Brandzels wanted to show how tall the replacement 520 bridge would be in its approach to the Montlake neighborhood (its highest point, right in front of their apartment), but 10 feet of line were unused. The ceiling wasn't high enough. “We can only let out 30 feet,” said Liz, which she noted is the proposed height of the bridge across the middle of Lake Washington.

This complaint of too tall a bridge—along with complaints that the bridge will lack transit lanes, fails to make a good connection between buses and the light-rail line, will route more traffic to the arboretum, and more—were on parade Tuesday night at an open house of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). Dozens of easels, diagrams, charts, and maps showed the proposed six-lane 520 bridge to replace the existing, aging four-lane span. A line of people waited to speak into a microphone, hectoring a weary panel of state employees with gripe after grievance that, despite 13 years of planning, the state had delivered blueprints for an indefensibly archaic floating freeway.

“I remember when we built the first 520 bridge,” Dorli Rainey, 83, told the panel. “People said we need to relieve congestion. It’s the same wording we hear now. We keep paving over the suburbs. We need to move into the 21st century with our transportation planning.” She went to Olympia for two days this winter to pressure lawmakers on the bridge. Rainey, who moved here in 1956 from Austria, wants transit on the bridge and containment of sprawl. She cited the city council’s goal for carbon neutrality and the threat of global warming. “The city has grown out to Sultan with nothing but CO2-producing houses and three-car garages, and it’s not ready for transit,” she said.

Rainey wanted to talk to me after her speech. She spoke under a whip of frosty hair and wore a long camel-colored coat and red-and-camel plaid scarf. She twirled a collapsible umbrella in her hands as she spoke. “It was the same mantra. Open the suburbs to create jobs,” said Rainey, citing the full-page ad paid for by Microsoft that ran that day in the Seattle Times. She chastised Bill Gates for saying Americans must reduce carbon emissions while leading a business that wants a wider freeway. “You can’t have it both ways.”

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  • WSDOT

Despite 13 years of planning, the 520 bridge has been a virtual non-issue for Seattle. State Senator Ed Murray (D-43) says he’s received only a handful of calls about the project while constituents have been blowing up his phone to talk about the downtown deep bore tunnel. I’m guilty, too; my interest in 520 only spiked last fall—when most of the designs were all but cast in concrete, and Seattle’s window of influence had slammed shut. Where was former mayor Greg Nickels when Seattle had a chance to demand more transit—or transit-only lanes—on the new span? Why weren’t we (the media, the public, the elected leaders of city hall) consciously tending to a project that will cost more than the deep-bore tunnel?

But I had only two questions, most of my others now moot, wandering around the room of Seattle neighborhood types: What will the new bridge’s width be—and by that, I mean, how sincere is this claim that 520 will be only 115 wide and not a much wider freeway? And how/when/why did the state not study an option that included lanes dedicated for transit? With only three basic designs on the table—only those studied for their environmental impacts—the city and state have little to choose from.

What I found at the meeting after the jump.

Before I go on, people have said again and again that the bridge design—even if we don’t like it at first—could accommodate transit and light rail in the future. “It is important to note that decisions we make now on the designs of the facility do not preclude future options for high capacity transit in the corridor,” wrote Governor Christine Gregoire in a letter to the Seattle City Council on February 1.

She cited a state law authorizing the 520 rebuild that says, “The bridge shall also be designed to accommodate light rail in the future.”

You might assume that these two statements say that the bridge we are building, as designed, could hold light rail. You could be wrong. One document, among thousands of pages at the open house, was titled, “SR 520 Bridge — Lane Configuration and Width Information.” The the third section says there are two options for high-capacity transit: One would replace the carpool lanes with light rail (which is an unlikely sacrifice); the other option would be “a six-lane bridge plus light rail or dedicated [Bus Rapid Transit] with the future addition of 15 feet in width on each side of the bridge.” The bridge would be widened to create a 145-foot span (the current bridge is 60 feet wide, the proposed bridge is officially 115 feet wide). In other words, the bridge we are designing doesn’t really accommodate light rail—it could be modified—greatly widened to a span that’s wider than a 14-story building is tall. This reflects the illustrations I posted last week that shows what is, in essence, an eight-lane bridge with enough extra space to become a 10-lane bridge.

The bridge with six lanes
  • WSDOT
  • The bridge with six lanes
Was this simply a way “to make the road 'concrete ready' for eight or even 10 lanes?” Paige Miller, the executive director of the Arboretum Foundation, asked the panel. She said the bridge must be transit ready within the six lanes, instead of requiring yet another process to widen the roadway for light rail someday. She also came out, on behalf of the group, to oppose the current preferred alignment (called A+) that would use an exit “as a long on and off ramp through the arboretum.”

But how did we end up with this—a design that, in hindsight, should have at least studied transit-only lanes? We were planning a light-rail network for a decade, so there’s plenty of time.

“To my knowledge, I don’t know if a transit-only lane was discussed,” said Daniel Babuca, one of the WSDOT’s engineers. But, he says, “I don’t think it was a lack of foresight.” In the year 2030, transit-only lanes would “displace about 19,000 vehicles a day from HOV lanes.” Another engineer, Larry Kyle, said studies show there is room for carpools and buses to move quickly—eventually car traffic could slow down the buses, “but that would be years into the future.”

Julie Meredith, the SR 520 project manager, has worked on 520 since 2003 and had more information. A Translake study group of 47 people, she explains, looked at many potential alignments from 1997 to 2003. A transit-only lane “worked less well,” she says. Eventually, the group’s recommendations—including the six-lane bridge proposal we have now, which mixes carpools with transit, but lacks light rail or dedicated transit lanes—were adopted by the governor in 2007. The legislature ratified those recommendations.

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“They started with the basic premise that cars are everything,” said Liz Brandzel, the woman with the balloons. “They are committed to highways and it is clear to me they have kept this one image for so long that they have convinced themselves it is the best.”

Not one member of the public I heard that night approved of the 520 bridge design. Even the people who thought some recent neighborhood opposition was quixotic—Larry Sinnot said the Sustainable 520 group, backed by the mayor and the 43rd District's state lawmakers, needed a “reality check”—thought the final bridge design bore obvious errors. He said enforcement of the carpool lane was unlikely, based on a widespread lack of enforcement of Eastside carpool lanes, which could impact transit.

But this was the opinion of Seattle—the city that has barely engaged in the 520 debate. Meredith said, “If we do a public meeting on the other side, we would probably hear that we should have proposed a wider corridor than the six lanes.”