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Think tank: Innovate to fix 520

The state cannot keep the aging, overworked Evergreen Point bridge floating forever, and new options including tolls or tunnels across Lake Washington must be studied to preserve Highway 520.
That message was delivered yesterday on the second and final day of a regional conference hosted by the Discovery Institute, a private think tank that invited transportation experts to Kirkland to dream up a cure for the bridge’s chronic congestion.

All the speakers agreed that with the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge not expected to last more than 20 more years, something must be done – and soon.

“If we can strike a chord, get something people can rally around, you make decisions boldly,” said Glenn Pascall, an economist and chief investigator for the institute’s Cascadia project, which envisions a regional approach to problem solving.

Talks focused on taking a look at new approaches. Speakers told of selling a highway in Canada to private interests and building a state-of-the-art tunnel at a bargain price in Scandinavia.

“Let’s start thinking differently about how we approach these things,” said Jonathan Huggett, a Vancouver, B.C., expert on financing.

Huggett said he’s worked on jobs all over the world, often involving public agencies designing projects and then going to construction with the lowest bidder.

“This is the most inefficient, worst way to deliver a project,” he said.

Instead, he suggested going to a design-build approach in which certain parameters are laid out, but then requests for proposals are put out to private developers, and it’s left to them to decide how to fix a problem, at a set price.

Another Canadian, Mike Cautillo, minister of transportation for the Province of Ontario, spoke on the development of Route 407 in Toronto and how it is being paid for with a high-tech toll system.

Route 407 uses a system of transponders in cars, with some 375,000 distributed so far, and license-plate photography systems to send monthly bills to drivers to charge them for using the 43-mile highway.

Cautillo added that the highway route was sold to a Spanish company for $3.1 billion in May 1999 after the government of Ontario decided it no longer wanted to be involved in the highway’s operation, and that the sale will help solve financial problems.

Innovations in materials can also solve transportation problems, said Janos Wimpffen, a consultant in the United States and Europe. Wimpffen told how a bridge-and-tunnel system has been built connecting Sweden and Denmark at a pace and price that would seem astounding in the Seattle area.

Work on the 10-mile crossing began in 1991 and the route opened yesterday, largely built with prefabricated sections and including four highway lanes and two rail tracks. Perhaps most amazingly, he noted, the price was about $2 billion, “a real bargain.”