October 31, 2007
When a sleepy barge captain rammed the Highway 520 bridge seven years ago, he might have done the region a favor.
The barge broke a column near Seattle, allowing engineers a peek inside. The pillar, they found, was eroding from the inside out. A subsequent report said the 520 bridge on Lake Washington was as likely to fail in an earthquake as its notorious crosstown cousin, the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Even with that wake-up call, it's taken five years for elected officials to offer the public a proposal for funding Highway 520. Proposition 1, a regional transportation measure on the Nov. 6 ballot, includes $1.1 billion toward a $4.4 billion replacement bridge, with two general-purpose lanes and a bus/car-pool lane in each direction, to open in 2018.
In fact, nobody knows the cost of a new bridge because there's no consensus on how to design it. And the Legislature's funding strategy is unclear, too; it relies on a yet-undetermined plan for charging tolls.
This dilemma exists in part because legislators earmarked only 5 percent of new state gas taxes toward the bridge, while pouring greater sums into the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Interstate 405. Until very recently, 520 was a political hot potato, with Seattle and Eastside leaders focused on their own sides of the lake.
Backers of the measure say that if a billion dollars is pulled off the table now, a new bridge likely would take longer to build, and odds of a catastrophe would increase.
"It's a partial solution. It gets us further down the road to complete funding," said Jan Drago, chairwoman of the Seattle City Council's transportation committee.
In a photo from Proposition 1's government brochure, whitecaps slosh against the pontoons of the 44-year-old bridge. The state thinks that, besides the quake risk, a 20-year windstorm or sustained winds of 75 mph could sink it.
"Vulnerable bridges would be replaced in the RTID [roads] plan, including the SR 520 bridge, the SR 9 bridge over the Snohomish River, and Seattle's South Park Bridge," says a recent mailing funded by Sound Transit.
Redmond Mayor Rosemarie Ives said, "That language is not accurate," because it leads people to believe passage of the proposition would fully fund a floating bridge. A mailing from the "yes" campaign is more restrained, saying the measure "provides funds toward replacing the SR-520 bridge, with HOV lanes and a bike lane."
Along with the Proposition 1 money — mainly from a new car-tab tax — the Legislature's preliminary funding strategy for a bridge assumes $1.2 billion in tolls, $560 million in already-earmarked gas taxes, $1 billion in future gas and car-tab taxes, $110 million in federal bridge grants, and $200 million in possible federal transit money, which hasn't been applied for yet.
Studies indicate that to reach the full $1.2 billion in tolls, they may need to be charged on the dual Interstate 90 floating bridges as well as the new 520.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said if Proposition 1 fails, there will be pressure to consider something really distasteful: a toll on the old 520 bridge.
Sponsoring agencies say the regional package is worth $18 billion in 2006 dollars for light-rail and road construction, land, trains and buses. If inflation, short-term financing, overhead and operations are added, the total reaches $38 billion by 2027, when projects are supposed to be done, with additional debt and operating costs afterward.
Last year, a state Department of Transportation (DOT) document included a drawing of a 15-lane aerial interchange, where an exit bridge might extend from Foster Island to Husky Stadium.
That's fueled a backlash from some residents. "Neighbors Opposing Prop. 1," with Sierra Club help, is distributing fliers that depict a mass of concrete over the island.
Fran Conley, co-chairwoman of the opponent group, says defeat of Proposition 1 would give communities more clout to change the bridge's design, the subject of mediation talks until December 2008. "This is the only choice citizens have to influence design. If it passes, they can start building 520 — and the current plans are unacceptable," she said.
Drago replied that during mediation, there's "no way" the DOT could simply impose a design. She said highway officials have recently shown more willingness to seek broad support from local groups.
Meanwhile, the City Council and Legislature have each passed bills that request slimmed-down designs.
Bridge supporter Jonathan Dubman said, "I don't think some folks in that [no] campaign are likely to be happy with anything that's buildable."
The road ahead
Win or lose, the election doesn't mean an immediate infusion, nor shortage, of money: Proposition 1 money wouldn't be allotted to Highway 520 until 2015 to 2020.
The state can use existing funds to build new pontoons.
A loss could prompt King County to create a roads-improvement district and try again at the ballot, Haugen said.
Also, some transit fans might reopen debate about running light rail across a new 520 bridge, instead of on I-90, where Proposition 1 calls for a Sound Transit light-rail line.
Robert Rosencrantz, president of the Montlake Community Club near the bridge, said he's optimistic that lawmakers would find money if Proposition 1 fails, because they realize the danger of not acting: "I think it's simply a matter of priorities."
Haugen said lawmakers would try, but her colleagues would resist delaying projects in their own areas to free up more money for 520. They stuck their necks out to vote for statewide gas-tax increases in 2003 and 2005, while promising their constituents the money would deliver local road improvements. That's political reality, she said.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org