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February 11, 2005

A Study in Contrasts

So Seattle's Montlake neighborhood just unveiled a proposal to replace the 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington with a project whose centerpiece, according to the Seattle P-I, would be...

a suspension bridge that would soar from near Interstate 5 over Portage Bay and Montlake and then descend to a new floating bridge on Lake Washington....

Neighborhood residents who overflowed a building at Montlake Park on Wednesday night were enthusiastic about the plan, which one of the creators, Rob Wilkinson, said could be "a signature bridge" -- perhaps one designed by the famous designer Santiago Calatrava. He has seen the site and expressed general interest.

There's more to the plan than that.  Including the pricetag:  $3 billion, or a billion more than the state's existing plan for replacing the 520 bridge would cost.  City and state transportation officials called the neighborhood's plans "exciting," and "fascinating."

Compare this with the news from Vancouver, BC:  the province of BC wants to build more highways in greater Vancouver.  But the Vancouver regional government says that the highways are "out of sync" with the metropolitan area's plans, which favor transit and HOV lanes over expensive new highways.

That's a real contrast in political cultures:  the government of Washington's largest city is all fired up about vastly expensive highway projects, and has to petition and cajole state legislators to fund them; while the government of BC's largest metro area is trying to say no to highway projects that are being foisted on them by the province.

Seems to me that Vancouver, though, is on to something:  after all, the city is frequently ranked among the world's best places to live, even though (or, more likely, because) it has no freeways running through it.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink


I'd heard about this alternate proposal from the neighborhood and am curious what the routing actually is--hard to visualize from the vague description in the Times. If you come across anything concrete, I'd love it if you post a link.

By the way, the WSDOT site lists the projected cost for replacement as:

4-Lanes — $1.7 - 2.0 billion
6-Lanes — $2.6 - 2.9 billion

So as this is a 6 lane proposal, $3B is not "a billion more than the state's existing plan".

Posted by: Maarten | Feb 11, 2005 5:12:52 PM

When is the puget sound area going to get a clue (or TAKE a clue from Portland) and get truly into light rail. The idea is to MOVE PEOPLE, not to win design awards!

Posted by: Joe | Feb 11, 2005 9:17:05 PM

Fair point -- if I'm not mistaken the state doesn't really have a preferred alternative for the 520 bridge. I assumed -- given how expensive road construction has become -- that the state would be forced to go for the cheaper option out of financial necessity. But that's not necessarily the a fair assumption.

Also, a recall an article from a couple of years ago about a traffic study that showed that a westbound commute across 520 would get *slower* if you added more lanes, because it would dump more cars onto I-5 right before the downtown chokepoints, causing cascading backups onto 520. I googled a bit and couldn't find a reference to the study online; but I assumed (yeah, I know, when I assume, I make a yada yada) that it had thrown some cold water on the push to widen 520. That might not be true, though.

So, I guess that I should have said that Montlake wants the state to pay for 6 lanes rather than 4, in the process adding between $1 billion and $1.3 billion above the less expensive option.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Feb 11, 2005 9:31:40 PM

I am the co-author of a piece in today's Seattle Times (Feb. 13) on this new vision for SR-520. Please see that article and also http://www.betterbridge.org for more information on this new vision.

I'd like to respond to the Joe's point that "The idea is to MOVE PEOPLE, not to win design awards!" We believe we can do both - and more - at a reasonable cost. A key aspect of our proposal is a direct connection to the proposed University of Washington light rail station. 21,000 daily boardings are expected at that station, and 47,000 riders on SR-520, without the direct connection, in the year 2030 modeling. With a great connection, those numbers are expected to increase.

The SR-520 Executive Committee has elected not to pursue (but not to preclude) high capacity transit across Lake Washington in the SR-520 corridor. Our plan assumes (and facilitates) rapid and frequent express bus service between Seattle and the Eastside. Our vision would more readily accommodate fixed-guideway high capacity transit than the current WSDOT plans.

Montlake has been intrigued by the possibility of a 4-lane reconstructed highway with congestion pricing to achieve HOV speed and reliability with a smaller cost and environmental impact than a 6 lane configuration. However, we have been unsuccessful in convincing regional decision makers that this is a viable approach worth studying, and we have been told that a new 6 lane bridge, adding HOV lanes, is all but a foregone conclusion. A 6 lane floating bridge is a bow to political reality, and may have much merit, as it is frankly unclear whether congestion pricing is sufficient to achieve the speed and reliability HOV lanes would offer to transit given other, fixed constraints on the system (e.g. congestion on I-5).

No matter how many lanes are constructed across the lake, we are advocating an approach that simultaneously addresses the environmental impacts -- opening up as much as 14 acres of wetlands that would otherwise be paved -- and solves the infamous Montlake Bridge bottleneck, a point of congestion that affects all modes of transportation, including cars, bicycles, local and regional transit.

The cost figures cited in the otherwise accurate Seattle Post-Intelligencer article were incorrect; WSDOT's 6 lane proposal is estimated at $2.9 billion, and we are not claiming an exact figure for our alternative at this time. Rather, we are asking that it be officially studied so a full and fair comparison can be made.

I have personally read a number of the Northwest Environment Watch publications and admire its work. We hope NEW will be inspired to join the growing ranks of enthusiasts for studying this new approach. We would be thrilled to present more about our proposal if the opportunity arises.

Posted by: Jonathan Dubman | Feb 13, 2005 6:34:04 PM

I think that cost is going to become a much bigger factor in the ultimate fate of SR 520 than most people are willing to admit at this point. Given the cost advantage of the 4 lane replacement and the vocal and organized opposition to a 6 lane highway (at least on the surface) on both sides of the lake, that is where I would place my bet, at least for now. The Puget Sound Region is too short on money and has too many projects competing for attention to go with much more than the bare minimum on anything. Additionally, the traffic impacts on I-5 need to be seriously considered.

Also, I fail to see how a huge suspension bridge will not be massively more expensive than something resembling the current configuration. That's just my gut talking though - I could be proved wrong.

As someone who is not all that interested in SR 520 (except for the impact additional traffic will have on I-5, which I would be personally affected by) my biggest criteria is that this project be done as cheaply as possibly. If expanding beyond four lanes is an absolute must, then an HOV lane or some kind of light rail or monorail line is what makes sense to me. Adding a third lane in each direction for single occupancy vehicles, however, makes no sense at all and will be worse for Seattle.

Posted by: Roy Smith | Feb 14, 2005 9:41:12 AM

First, to eat some crow regarding my comment above -- the state has more or less ruled out an *8-lane* 520 replacement because traffic models show that it would make congestion much worse. The six lane option is still very much on the table. Mea culpa.

Second, in response to Jonathan --
I'm sorry I simply repeated the $3 billion figure from the P-I. And for the record, I think it's a great idea study a nifty design to replace 520. I really do. If you're going to sink $3 billion into a road, or anything else for that matter, you might as well do it right; you won't get any do-overs for the next 60 years. I think the same thing about the Viaduct -- if the political reality is that the Viaduct is going to be replaced, I'd rather see a tunnel than another aerial highway, even if it costs more.

But in the case of the Viaduct at least, I'm not sure that it is the political reality. The problem is cost. The bill for greater Seattle's "necessary" transportation infrastructure is staggering: $3-4 billion, and maybe more, for the Viaduct; $3 billion for 520; $2 billion to repave I-5 sometime in the next decade or so; $1.6 billion for the monorail; $2 billion or so for light rail (I can't recall the exact figure off the top of my head); plus billions more for I-405, plus highway projects in the suburbs and exurbs. Adding it all up, I think that the political reality is that something has to give--one, or perhaps more than one, of the "necessary" projects simply isn't going to get done.

So, again, sorry if I seemed too harsh about the idea of studying a nifty design. I'm really not; beautiful (& environmentally sensitive) infrastructure can have lasting benefits. But I think that the Seattle area in general is in a bit of denial about the enormous financial sacrifice all this infrastructure is going to impose.

I just thought the contrast in political cultures between Vancouver and Seattle was fascinating all on its own. Vancouver is the Northwest's least sprawling metropolis, by far. It sprawls less than any of the 17 US cities we've studied; and its downtown is more vibrant and is attracting more new residents than Seattle and Portland combined. Seattle is the most sprawling major NW metropolis. And all this is no accident: it's to a large extent a consequence of how the two cities planned their transportation infrastructure in the 1950s through 1970s.

Best of luck!

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Feb 14, 2005 9:47:43 AM

For Seattle to be more like Vancouver, we would need a way to divert thru-traffic around the city. Ironically, wouldn't that mean either building that nasty Cascade Foothills Superhighway or substantially widening/improving 405?

Is there data on the percentage of I-5 traffic that continues straight through v. inbound/outbound traffic?

As a thought experiment, if we wanted to evolve more towards a freeway-free city, how would we redesign SR-520? Would its traffic be dispersed onto city streets rather than fed onto I-5?

In response to to MCC's suspension bridge proposal for SR-520, my inclination is more to think about alternatives that would bury the highway much more than it currently is. Can the 150ft rise over western portage bay be replaced with a trench cut into the north Cap Hill hillside? Can the Montlake area be lidded more effectively?

Posted by: Maarten | Feb 14, 2005 1:20:19 PM