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Think tank digs into debate over 520 tunnel

Taking another look at building a tunnel under Lake Washington was among the ideas mentioned yesterday in a seminar addressing problems with the Highway 520 corridor.
The two-day seminar, “State Route 520: A Corridor in Crisis,” is being conducted at the Woodmark Hotel in Kirkland by the Discovery Institute, a public-policy group. The seminar continues today and is open to the public.

Building a tunnel under Lake Washington was considered and rejected, largely because of cost, during the 18-month Trans-Lake Washington Study that was finished a year ago.

But Bruce Chapman, president of the institute, said yesterday that such a view is shortsighted, that tunneling technology has changed and that such a project might be feasible, if only because it may defuse deep political differences.

In addressing problems with the corridor, the institute might be successful where public efforts have failed partly because its approach falls outside traditional thinking, Chapman said.

“We’re a think tank. We’re not elected officials,” he said. “We’re not beholden to anyone. People can say, `This is nonsense,’ and they can walk away. Our aim is just to lay it out in front of them. At the end of the day, we will have a plan that really will solve the problem.”

Glenn Pascall, an economist and chief investigator for the institute, said the reason the Seattle area has some of the country’s worst traffic is because two groups with opposing views each have partly won.

One group, Pascall said, thinks it’s impossible for the region to build its way out of traffic jams. The other group thinks it is possible to build something that will fix transportation problems.

But neither group has been totally successful, resulting in a stalemate that’s strangling the region, Pascall contended.

As a result, he said, a “populist revolt” has produced responses such as Initiative 695 but provided no overall relief.

At the same time, public agencies have failed in educating the public about their visions or intentions, he added.

Chapman yesterday suggested another look at a tunnel under Lake Washington might be desirable.

Simply expanding the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge is almost certain to outrage someone, Chapman said.

“Almost anything you do will be objected to,” he noted, but a tunnel might improve traffic and bring benefits to such places as Medina or Seattle’s Montlake neighborhood.

“If you can heal that, politically this becomes a lot more advantageous,” he said. “I think we have a political problem as much as we have a transportation problem.”

Although the session was privately sponsored, including funding from the McCaw Foundation, it included public analysis that essentially agreed with the private views.

“We haven’t built roads, we haven’t built transit, we haven’t built arterials, and we’re surprised when we have a congestion problem?” asked Rob Fellows of the state Department of Transportation, who oversaw the Trans-Lake study.

Another aim of the sessions is to try to get the area high-tech industry involved, said Bruce Agnew, Discovery Institute director, partly explaining the McCaw Foundation funding.

Traditionally, he said, people with property interests in the Highway 520 corridor have been involved in seeking solutions, but groups with economic interests have been absent, partly because the transportation situation is so confusing.

As a result, thousands of Microsoft employees are caught in Highway 520 traffic daily, but Microsoft and similar companies have had little role in trying to cope with the problems.