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SR 520 and the long-term effects of doing nothing

The surprising thing about the 520 bridge over Lake Washington is how well the thing is working, despite the poor planning that is its hallmark. Decades after the region’s growth passed it by, the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge and its larger sibling, the 520 transportation corridor between Redmond and Seattle, is handling groaning levels of buses and cars. This despite decades of neglect, indifference, cross-lake infighting and regional leadership that would sooner run for higher office than face a tough issue head on.

Two days of pertinent and penetrating analysis of the 520 problem stirs these emotions. Hosted by Seattle-based Discovery Institute, the forum brought comparisons to bridge spans in Scandinavia and a toll road in Ontario to discussions of a 520 fix. But the fix is in that the fix is a long time coming because of the way we do public business on process-captured Puget Sound.

Innovative ideas about a new corridor linking the job-rich Eastside to population-dense Seattle abound. A world-class walking-biking linear park that is part of a 520 redo is mentioned as just one possibility in an important paper by transportation consultant Preston Schiller. Schiller also points out the surprising durability of the 520 roadway despite error upon error.

“That state highway 520 continues to function well as a transit corridor is also surprising given ongoing poor planning, examples of which include the recent construction of a costly ($40 million) 520/I-405 interchange without an HOV lane,” Schiller wrote.

Given the fact that the 520 floating bridge goes in a pretty straight line from one shore to the other, the obvious question to ask is, how tough can a solution be? All over the world, graceful and useful structures are spanning waterways with enhanced technology and traffic flow incorporating bus, rail, pedestrians and bicyclists. Bruce Chapman of the Discovery Institute prefers a tunnel solution. That offers engineering problems that are daunting, given the depth of Lake Washington and the slopes of the approaches to the lake. But that’s not really the issue. Engineers can solve problems. It’s the rest of us who can’t.

“520 is a hole in our transportation planning,” said Rob Fellows of the state Department of Transportation. Action by the state Legislature once prohibited the department from even planning a 520 solution. “The 520 issue,” Fellows said, “is part of the politics of veto.”

In the past, de facto vetoes have come from Montlake, a beautiful Seattle community that has been at times remarkably self-absorbed about its importance in the world, and from folks on the east side of the lake who feel similarly entitled. Elected leadership has lacked the guts to confront those neighborhoods. As proof, I offer the fact that replacing the 520 floating bridge, arguably the region’s biggest traffic dilemma and where polls show congestion the most important priority, has not been the centerpiece of a single local politician’s campaign for office.

A proposal to widen and add HOV lanes as recently as 1994 failed. That failure can be laid at the feet of the usual suspects. Residents on both sides of the lake hated ramps and lids that have been used elsewhere and adorn Mercer Island over I-90. Even at the forum last week, audience members where hooting as the late, not-so-lamented 1994 plan was reviewed. A more startling occurrence was that members of the 47-member Trans Lake Study committee said they had never seen the earlier ideas. “Where’d that come from?” one asked. This is from a member of a committee that was supposed to look at all the alternatives to trans-lake solutions.

“We are living with two ideas that grind against each other,” said planning consultant Gary Lawrence. One side says we seek material advances, we want to make life easier and better. The other calls for the need for community values and preservation. “Each side is holding the other hostage,” said Portland-based planner Sam Seskin. “Advocates of the compact urban form,” Seskin said, “often win these arguments (whether to build or not build), but I don’t think it’s a position that is sustainable.”

The compact urban form, as Seskin describes it, is a belief that holding down traffic flows will hold down the push to the suburbs. Clearly, that’s not working, here or anywhere.

“We’re studying this thing to death,” said Mark Weed of Fisher Properties, and a member of the Trans Lake Study committee. “I also think that’s one of the agendas (for stalling on 520). We’re also doing a lot of wishful thinking–that people will sit in HOVs, that people will stop moving here or that their children will move to someplace else.”

“We’re also too cheap,” Weed told the forum. “Every time we establish a way to pay for something, we begin to erode it. We are among the wealthiest people in the world, why are we so cheap and stingy?”

No one close to the problem sees a solution for 520 coming in less than 12 to 15 years. If you think 10 years, you’re an optimist. Despite studies and new global solutions to crossing open water, no one is standing up to the challenges and the opportunity to get the job done.