As I’m looking over the recently announced 520 plan and discussing it with other transit supporters, something very unlikely seems to come out: Positive effects on future cross-lake transit.
The original 6-lane alternative for 520 would have been built to support light rail later. This really only means making the pontoons wide enough to handle more weight, but the effect it’s had on the cross-lake transit discussion in the wake of Proposition 1’s defeat has been to create sudden interest in building transit across 520 instead of across I-90. This is bad for several reasons – 520 would be much more expensive to engineer, it would be hard to serve both Bellevue and Redmond, and a train transfer at Husky Stadium would reduce ridership and cause commuters into downtown to endure crush loads. I-90 is built to handle rail transit, and because Eastside commuters would come into Seattle from the south, they wouldn’t be forced to cram onto trains already packed with people from North Seattle.
The design change proposed as part of this plan would cut $400 million from the cost of the 520 project. It would narrow the bridge and pontoons: Each lane would go from 12 feet to 11 feet, and future support for light rail would be eliminated. But light rail over 520 isn’t anywhere in near-term planning, and won’t be until well after we build rail to Northgate, the East Link extension and likely a project in the Ballard-West Seattle corridor. By the time we talk about putting rail on 520, any new bridge could already be halfway through its operating lifetime.
Bus transit across 520 to several major destinations already exists. Many daily commuters use these routes for only some of the week – but with tolling going into effect, some of these commuters who have the option of transit can ride more often, possibly reducing congestion. This small shift combined with those who choose to switch from their cars to a cheaper transit trip will also boost cross-lake transit use, making potential ridership for the East Link project higher and more likely to receive Federal Transit Administration grants – and votes here at home.