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.

26 Replies to “Gregoire’s 520 Plan: Interesting Positives”

  1. I’m liking more and more the way this is sounding.

    Maybe by next year (2010) there will be rail on the ballot and maybe we’ll build it quicker now that we have the first chunk done (in theory by then).

  2. I don’t think there’s any relation between building it at any particular pace and how much we have done. That has more to do with the tax recovery.

    Next year is 2009… not a good year for transit to be on the ballot. This is a good year for it, with high Democratic turnout expected and no roads package, but with a promise from the state to fund 520.

  3. I’m really partial to the Pacific Interchange Option — given how horrific the bus merge onto I-5 is, it might make a lot of sense for 520 bus lines to terminate the Husky Stadium stop.

    I know it’s a transfer, but — 8 minutes!

  4. That’s a good point, buses can just drop the riders there if light rail trains with four minute headways and eight minute trips are going downtown.

  5. I believe this is a great plan, but I believe we could furthur reduce the cost by not building some of the lids that have been proposed, mainly the ones on the Eastside and the I-5 one. The lids there won’t serve as much people since density there is extremely low (with all the mansions and stuff). But I think we should keep the Montlake Lid because it serves more people and it just seems more viable.

    Now, I don’t mean that lids can’t be built in the future. The project could prepare for the future of lids at a later date.

  6. Building lids later would be unlikely to happen – ever. I do happen to agree with you that a lot of lidding is unnecessary, but consider the cost-benefit: Very rich people will do a lot to try to stall the project entirely if we don’t build the lids, and it’s likely they could cost the state more than the lids would cost. It’s well outside the scope of a specific project to change that.

  7. The state is making progress with quiet asphalt pavements. Most of the roar we hear from freeway traffic is tires rubbing on rough pavement. Smooth asphalt with porous qualities absorbs noise, not only for freeway neighbors but for vehicle occupants. (Yes, it’s for real. When you hit a stretch of this stuff, you have to reach over and turn your radio down — the car gets that quiet.)

    If the state could pledge to use the new quiet pavement on 520, the need for some of the lids and noise walls might just go away.

  8. Regarding the Pacific Interchange option, it’s a huge and expensive mass of concrete right out in the lake. Second, it requires traffic to/from the west to follow a circuitous, out-of-direction route — thousands of extra miles driven every day, and for what?

    A better solution might be to keep the freeway in its current alignment, and keep the Montlake Blvd. interchange functioning, but have the bridge’s HOV lanes (only) fly over to a touchdown point at Pacific & Montlake.

    That keeps all the UW HOV traffic off the Montlake Bridge (including buses of course). The added concrete in the water is reduced to only the HOV lane connector, and the forced out-of-direction travel is eliminated. And traffic on the Montlake Bridge is reduced with the elimination of most of the HOV traffic.

  9. okay, I’m thinking about what you are saying roger p.

    So we do a “flyover” that hits husky stadium, than get’s back on the Montlake Bridge?

    That’s not that bad really, especially if they could use the turn lane on the right side of the road as an HOV+turn lane and then get back on 520 toward downtown quickly.

    Signal priority at the Husky Stadium Terminal/Subway Station could make that sort of awesome.

  10. Daimajin, re Husky Stadium HOV ramps, what I’m envisioning is a combination of Pacific Interchange solution and the current footprint solution. It’s Pacific Interchange but with only HOV lanes going to Montlake & Pacific.

    HOV lanes would also continue on 520 to I-5 however. The Montlake & Pacific HOV ramps would connect to bridge HOV lanes only to the Eastside. It’s probably easier to draw it up than try to decribe it, but I’m not much of an artist.

  11. I don’t mean to be to detailed, but (regarding roger p.’s plan) you’re all saying that HOV lanes will have a direct access point to the intersection of Montlake and Pacific (i’m assuming only a westbound off-ramp and a eastbound on-ramp), and the current Montlake interchange would be “renovated”?

    I like that idea; HOVs and buses can skip all that congestion while SOVs sit in car exhaust.

  12. You got it, except I’m not sure about SOVs sitting in car exhaust.

    The renovated Montlake interchange might have different SOV ramps than it has now; it should work better in that all the UW HOVs would be gone; they would have direct access to the Montlake/Pacific intersection.

    And Montlake/Pacific should work better than envisioned under Pacific Interchange because only the HOV traffic would be added to the mix, not ALL the Montlake area traffic as envisioned under Pac. Interch.

  13. Light rail is a separate issue. It could be applied to different bridge configurations. The problem is, where does light rail go after it gets to Montlake? It can’t really switch onto U. Link tracks and go downtown — those tracks will be filled with trains from Northgate. Do you send it to Ballard, to provide needed cross-town service? Maybe that could be made to work (although he high density of development, and the Phinney Ridge hill, probably means a good deal of tunneling.

    Let’s figure this out before getting excited about light rail on 520

  14. I just don’t understand celebrating punting light rail on 520 out to 2040 (though considering how far past their designed life-spans most bright spans around here seem to stick around – it could be 2050). I know it’s a “distraction” for getting East Link done and the owners of this blog are afraid of a wedge issue dividing transit supporters but a more frequent 545 is not all that and a bag of chips and is certainly no solution for 25+ years (!).

    This will go down as a big failure of vision rather than a “necessary” cost savings measure.

  15. CJH,

    SR 520 will punted out to 2040 in any case. ST2 envisioned completing its construction by 2027, with nothing but a planning study for SR 520. It’s intensely optimistic to believe those trains could be operating a mere 13 years beyond that.

    And of course, ST2 failed, so you’re likely to see a far less aggressive set of proposals actually enacted in the coming years.

    Meanwhile, these ideas take oxygen away from the I-90 line, which could be here in 10 years with proper political will.

  16. Good point, Martin. I-90 is the ready-to-go corridor for light rail in the soonest possible timeframe. And it enters the downtown Seattle tunnel in a way that’s compatible with light rail in the other two corridors (north and south) — unlike trains on 520.

  17. Yes, East LINK could be built in 10 years with the proper political will. Why is that? Because the I-90 bridge is already ready to take trains and we don’t have to wait another 25-30 years for the bridge to be replaced.

    So I’ll throw it back at you, once East LINK is completed why couldn’t a 520 LINK be done in 5 years (or less) if the bridge is ready to take trains and the political will is there – notice that’s only 15 years in the future, not 32 (or more likely 42+)?

    Sure, the transfer situation at Montlake won’t be totally awesome but do any of you actually take the bus or drive across 520 right now? Because I sure do both and both suck balls in comparison to crossing the lake on I-90 in either a bus or car but the trade-off in sucking is usually acceptable for getting to anywhere north of Lake Union since one doesn’t have to take the time to cross through downtown Seattle in a car or bus. It would be similar with a transfer, do you honestly think that people from Kirkland or Redmond who want to get to say, Pike Place Market or Westlake or Capitol Hill (or Northgate) are going to prefer sitting in the train for an extra 25 minutes while they go to downtown Bellevue and then take time to go through downtown Seattle versus a dry and relatively quick transfer at Montlake with a maximum wait of what, 15 minutes (and basically no “backtracking”)? Then again, in my rapid transit fantasies, I dream of the Burke-Gilman being turned back into rails with a line running all the way from Ballard to Redmond.

    As for Montlake not being built to accommodate trains coming from across 520 – well, yeah, it isn’t. So what does that mean other than Sound Transit failed to think really long-term? Anyway, people will accept the transfer there in much larger numbers than you expect because unlike the horrible Montlake bus station – they will be dry and won’t be waiting that long. And hey, they can go north, too!

    Finally, “taking oxygen out of the room” is a bullshit argument for hamstringing future rail connections to the Eastside for 35-50 years. Seriously. It’s the politics of failure and I mean it.

  18. And, as my examples show, not just north of Lake Union but anything along the northern edge of downtown. ;)

  19. cjh, re your — “As for Montlake not being built to accommodate trains coming from across 520 – well, yeah, it isn’t. So what does that mean other than Sound Transit failed to think really long-term? Anyway, people will accept the transfer there in much larger numbers than you expect because unlike the horrible Montlake bus station – they will be dry and won’t be waiting that long. And hey, they can go north, too!”

    ST’s throwing up caution signs re light rail on 520 precisely because it has thought long-term — and that long-term vision is for light rail to use I-90 and enter Seattle CBD from the south, so rail traffic volumes are balanced.

    When I say that U Link will be full of trains from Northgate, that means the trains are projected to be full of riders, i.e. there won’t be much room for transferees from WB 520 to SB U Link, although as you say, they can transfer to NB U Link which should have capacity, since many UW riders will be getting off at Montlake.

  20. CJH,

    Well of course we could build light rail from everywhere to everywhere given sufficient political will and funding. However, any realistic funding plan doesn’t allow you to do I-90 and SR520 anything like simultaneously; therefore, 520 light rail is at least 30 years in the future and probably much more.

    Perhaps you’re advocating SR520 instead of I-90, but others have already covered some of the problems with that (less complete engineering, ridership, difficulty of going through Bellevue, etc.)

  21. Perhaps my argument is too subtle so let’s start from first principles.

    1) As Redmond, Kirkland and, especially Bellevue continue to increase in density and therefore population, demand for crossing the lake will also rise even if job growth is focused closer to where these new people live (i.e. on the Eastside).

    2) There is unlikely to ever be another Lake Washington crossing aside from the two we have right now due to the property situation on the lake front.

    3) 520 is actually over-capacity as a road right now. Even a new 520 will be near or at-capacity almost immediately as a road.

    4) 520 will be around an absolute minimum of 35 years after its construction is done.

    5) Detours kill ridership at about the same rate as transfers.

    Therefore, the only viable way to substantially increase commuter/user capacity across the lake will be rail.

    Yes, money is finite but we are already living with the consequences of being penny wise and pound foolish in terms of our current (lack of) rail system. That supposed transit advocates would be willing to sell down the river the ability to fast track rail expansion across the lake for a slight increase in the already good chance that East LINK will be built sometime in our lifetimes is absolutely galling.

    Fuck y’all.

  22. CJH,

    We’re trying to engage you rationally on this issue, and you have some good points, so let’s keep it civil.

    What I’m saying (and what I believe what Ben is saying) is that in the wake of Prop. 1, we’re simply not going to get far enough down on the priority list to get to SR 520.

    Everyone agrees that rail across the bridge would be great — in fact, one or two of the STB contributors would directly benefit. If Light Rail over I-90 were guaranteed, I’m sure we would advocate building the wider pontoons at 520.

    The anti-rail crowd has been very effective at divide and rule — using monorail fanatics against Sound Move, Eastside commuter rail and anti-road fanatics against Prop. 1, etc., etc. With I-90 far from a done deal, we have to minimize the opportunities for them to do that again.

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