Incremental Progress on the SR-520 Bridge

Last year the legislature passed a bill (HB2211) that authorized tolling on 520 starting in 2010. I voted against this for a variety of reasons, but mostly because the bill limited the potential uses of the tolling revenue to only the floating part of the bridge, leaving the eastside approaches waiting. We’re ready to go and only need authorization to start.

The Westside wants to make sure that our project doesn’t start until they get funding for their half. I’d be ok with that if they would only decide on what they want. They are scattered all over the place with competing factions right and left. Sometimes it seems that they are more interested in delaying the project than they are in resolving the design to something that works.

The bill last year set up a process we should use to resolve the design issues and propose a funding plan. The taskforce created in this legislation voted 11-2 today to approve the “A+” option, one of the last designs left standing. The final two contenders were “A+” and “M”.

A+ is fairly straightforward – 6 lanes from I-405 to I-5 with the same basic configuration we have today. The main interchange is at Montlake Ave., and we add a new bascule (lifty) bridge across the cut to handle the increased traffic.

Option M is more complex. Instead of going straight to Montlake there is a branch at Foster Island that turns into a tunnel under the cut. The tunnel comes up in the E6 parking lot, familiar to UW Tyee club members who make large donations as it’s the lot with the best egress after the game. There are serious issues with tunneling under the cut that make it very, very difficult for this option to receive the necessary environmental permits.  

Some Westside neighborhood groups like M, some like A+. There are functional differences that all users should care about though:

  • Metro came in today and testified that they preferred A+ because in the M option their busses have to merge into a single lane off-ramp at the Montlake exit, significantly slowing transit times.
  • It will take years to go through the environmental process with M and the result is very uncertain. All the natural resource agencies that testified said it would be difficult or impossible to permit the tunnel. It adds at least $100 million a year that we delay, and the bridge is at risk in windstorms like we’ve had this week.
  • The construction process would have significant impact on fish flow through the cut. The tribes have threatened to spend “infinite resources” to protect this flow.
  • Option M is much more expensive, costing about $1 – 1½  billion more than option A+.

Given equivalent functionality, similar costs, and timeframes that meet our deadlines I’d be willing to let the Westside work it out. None of these conditions are true, so I voted today for A+, the option that works the best and fits into our budget. The critical path for getting the project done requires that the legislature act this year, so it was vital that we make a decision in this workgroup.

The next decision we have to make is a financing plan. We’ve already identified about $2 billion in existing state funding and the planned tolls on SR520. To raise the additional $2.65 billion we proposed to

  • add HOT lanes to I-90 as soon as is practical, and
  • combine federal funds we expect to receive in “Tiger” grants as part of the stimulus plan and a part of a new proposed transportation revenue plan to happen in 2011.
  • If the above two elements are not adequate, we recommended that the legislature toll all lanes of I-90 between Mercer Island and Seattle. We probably will have to actually authorize the tolling so that WSDOT can issue the bids for our proposed “design-build” process for the bridge.

This is significant – we’re tolling one bridge to fund construction of another. As gas tax becomes less effective in funding projects we are going to have to rely on tolling more and more, particularly for these large mega-projects. The two bridges are intimately related – they form a single transportation corridor, and congestion on one spills over to the other almost immediately. Tolling one bridge is likely to result in significant delays on the other, so I believe it makes sense doing both. We’ll start with the express lanes being tolled and then move onto the general lanes if we can’t find enough gas tax to do it.

There are two immediate opportunities for you to comment on our decision. The first is at a town-hall our workgroup is having next week, and the second is at a Seattle City Council meeting also on the 24th.

SR 520 Legislative Workgroup Town Hall Meeting

Tuesday, November 24, 2009, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m
Presentation by workgroup co-chairs at 6:30 p.m.
Center for Urban Horticulture
3501 NE 41st Street, Seattle, WA 98105

I’ll publish details of the city council meeting when I get them.

This is progress. Incremental, painfully slow, torturous progress, but progress nonetheless. Our next challenge will be to get the bill implementing these recommendations passed in the 2010 legislative session. This will be difficult, but I look at it as work to get done. We are ready to move forward on the project and the construction jobs are desperately needed in today’s economy.

The Governor issued the blandest press release on this today. It’s so bland it’s almost art.

“My top priority is to ensure that the process of replacing the 520 bridge continues without delay.  This week’s windstorm is a reminder of the type of risks we face with the current structure. I appreciate that the SR 520 Legislative Workgroup is continuing to make progress and look forward to public comment on their recommendation.  We must keep the replacement process moving forward so we can build a new, safer SR 520 floating bridge.”

About the Author

Ross
I am the Director of the Department of Early Learning for Washington State. I formerly represented the 48th Legislative District in the State House of Representatives, chairing the Appropriations committee and spent many a year at Microsoft.