mercer mess (aka "my commute")
The Mercer Mess, by flickr user ChrisB in Sea

I missed this over the weekend, but the Times reported Saturday that Mayor Nickels says that the fix for the Mercer mess may be partially paid for by the Federal Stimulus Package. Apparently, the Feds would chip in $50 million of the $200 million Mercer Street project would come from the stimulus, in addition to $25 million for the $167 million Spokane Street viaduct project. You can read more about the Mercer Project here at the Seattle Department of Transportation’s website, and the Spokane Street Project here at the same place. Assuming this all works as the Mayor says it will, this is excellent news for transit.

First, a warning: this is all very preliminary. The total final dollar amount for the stimulus has not been finalized, at last look the House draft bill had $825 or $850 billion – the number depends on whom you ask – in tax cuts, infrastructure spending, education money and state aid, among other things. Also, the apportionment of the funds to these areas has not been finalized, though the Housedraft had $30 billion for roads. For one,  House Transportation Committee Chair James Oberstar (D-Minn) would like a bigger portion of the stimulus to go to transportation infrastructure. According to the Times, our state expects to get about $515 million for transportation, which is a guess based on the state’s population. Even then, the draft bill doesn’t say which projects would get funds, and if the money goes through the Washington Department of Transportation before making its way to individual projects, these two could conceivably not make the cut.

Background and more thoughts below the fold.

SLUT tracks
SLUT tracks on Valley St, by flickr user leff

For background, the “Mercer Mess” project would convert Mercer Street from a one-way street into a six-lane two-way boulevard, with direct access to I-5 and the future SR-99 tunnel. The motivation is mostly about cleaning up the congested and confusing roadways between I-5 and SR-99, and also turning Valley street from a westbound thoroughfare into a pedestrian friendly neighborhood street. If you’ve been down there, it can take fifteen or twenty minutes to get the half-mile or so from the Seattle Center to  I-5 on Mercer. Since the SLU streetcar runs on Valley, improving the congestion on that street is going to improve service for the Streetcar, as well as improving the experience at the new Lake Union Park, which is excellent on a nice day, and will only become more cherished over time as South Lake Union develops into an extension of downtown from the run-down semi-industrial no-man’s-land it has been.

SLU on Valley, by our own Brian

The Spokane Street project ads one HOV lane in each direction to that elevated structure, and I’ve been told by SDOT folks that this will make a big difference for bus service to West Seattle. Unlike some of the other contributors here, I’m not always against new highway lanes, though I am against most new highway lanes, and usually against general-purpose lanes. HOV lanes are often okay with me, especially if it means more reliable bus service. This seems to be one of those cases, and since the Viaduct will be replaced by a tunnel that doesn’t stop downtown, West Seattle commuters are going to need a reliable bus commute more than ever.

Lastly, $75 million the city doesn’t have to spend on roads is $75 million they could spend on transit, particularly new streetcars, though there’s no guarantee. The Spokane Street Viaduct HOV lanes should improve bus service to West Seattle, and the Mercer should improve the SLUT service and buses like the 66 and 70 that have to cross over that mess. Overall, I take this stimulus talk as welcome news, because I partially imagined $30 billion spent on brand new highways, and these obviously aren’t brand new highways, just a couple of miles of new HOV lanes. Though I am interested to learn what Ben Schiendelman – who has a very deep understanding of how roads effect neighborhoods and commute pattern – has to say on the matter.

I’m also interested what you guys have to say. Is this welcome news or would you rather the stimulus money go somewhere else? Thoughts on Mercer Street or the West Seattle Bridge? Leave ’em in the comments.

24 Replies to “Mercer Mess Fix Part of Stimulus?”

  1. From a transit-first perspective, this is an necessary evil. Personally, I feel this is necessary, and the faster it’s done, the less people have to worry, especially if they are creating distinct neighborhoods carved out of the chopped-up SLU area. With upzoning coming and a new wave of growth set for 2012+, I can’t imagine it’d be a problem to have this solved and paid for.

    Plus, Valley is too nice to be so bad.

  2. I’m surprised to read this here. Federal funding is great and all, but both of these are all about cars.
    You’re for $200 million to slightly improve SLUT performance when the SLUT cost just $50 million?

    1. I’m saying, if you’re going to spend money on roads, spend it on roads that improve transit.

      If you’ve been reading here for a while, and I think you have, you’ll know that roads are simply more expensive than transit, so it’s difficult to compare costs.

      1. Sorry Andrew, but I think using stimulus funding to “fix” Mercer is counter productive, on several levels.
        1. Promoting more auto travel on Mercer creates more greenhouse gas, and consumes more oil. Stimulus money should go towards projects that accomplish goals, not set them back. Transit is only marginally helped by increasing the capacity of Mercer/Valley couplet. (I’ve driven the 66 and 70 for years, and getting across Mercer was never a big deal). I’m not sure about the SLUT, but I don’t think it’s worth 50M of stimulus spending to go a little faster.
        2. The house version had $9Bil. for transit. Washington State is but 2% of the U.S. population, and Seattle only 9% of Wa. State. So, Seattle’s share of the transit pie is $17Mil. (barely a drop in the bucket).
        3. If Wa. State gets $515 Mil. for transportation, again using the formulas above, thats about $46 Mil. BUT, Seattle wants nearly double that, $75 Mil, and spend it on promoting auto travel on only two projects.

        I’m sure transit would do many other things with the money, rather than fix a couple of roads.

      2. What do you propose the roads dollars go to if not for fixing roads?

        The transit money should be spent where transit is used, not where the population is. Much of the state has no transit whatsoever, so why give them transit stimulus. It should follow the ridership.

        Point taken about Mercer Street and the 66/70.

      3. I’m not ready to yeild to spending the lions share of transportation money on roads, unless they can compete with transit for reducing CO2 emmissions, and reducing our dependance on foreign oil. That was the point I was trying to make.

        If you mean “them” to be everyone else but Seattle, or even the Puget Sound, then were back to my point 3 above. It looks like a money grab by Seattle when they get the lions share of funding, at the expense of everyone else in the state.
        I think there are lots of good transit projects around the state, that could compete heads up with Seattle. Just let the criteria be fair and comprehensive. High Speed Rail to Portland is a good example.

      4. Part of the problem with your analysis is that Seattle may have 9% of the population of the state living in it, but it has far more than 9% of the jobs in the state, about 62% of what king county has, and far more people commute into King than out of it. I’d guess that something like 15~20% of the jobs in the state are in the city limits If you look at it from that standpoint, building the west seattle bridge isn’t just for Seattle, it’s also for Burien, Sea-Tac and White Center, and the Mercer Street development is for anyone who goes to Seattle center, works in Belltown, Queen Anne or Ballard, etc. An extreme example is I-5. If you spend money on I-5, do you think that road is only used by Seattlites? What about I-5 in Shoreline?

        A $25 mn road project in Seattle is going to be used by a lot more people than a $25 mn road project in Cle Elum, not just because few people live in Cle Elum, but because few people commute into Cle Elum or go to Cle Elum for cultural events or sight seeing.

      5. On the other hand, I do agree that it would be great if we could get less highway funding and more transit funding, I just don’t see it happening anytime soon.

      6. Mercer is awful for the 30 from Seattle Center, and the Fairview/Valley intersection which does hold up the 70 (and non-express 71/72/73) is part of this fix.

  3. HOV lanes on the Spokane Viaduct is great. So long as they are extended over the bridge west-bound (currently there is a short HOV lane eastbound). BUT – once those westbound buses take the bridge, they will be forced into the 2-lane crunch as the lanes are reduced from 4 to 2 at the Admiral Exit. Buses will be included in the backups just like today.

    Ok, so say that the HOV lanes are installed and buses start using 4th Ave, or even remain on 1st, or 1st to get from West Seattle to downtown (since we won’t be using the tunnel route). Are HOV lanes planned along 1st or 4th as well? Unless this is the case, a 1 mile HOV lane on the bridge will not be of any help. Take those cars that won’t be using the tunnel, put them on surface streets, insta-gridlock. Unless HOV lanes (24/7) are consistently installed to create a bus transit line to/from downtown, no matter how many buses and types of buses you throw at West Seattle, it’s not going to make a difference. Add lights and other surface street slow-downs (that we don’t have today using the viaduct) and even with HOV lanes, it’s STILL SLOWER than now.

    1. As I understand the Spokane Street Viaduct project the main goal is to reduce the congestion caused by narrow lanes and all of the weaving/lane jockeying that happens as people try to merge/exit. The project should help with that some.

      1. The Mercer Mess Redux is a surface version of the Bay Freeway from the long ago and buried Uptown / South Lake Union Neighborhood Plan of the 90s. It was pretty 60s or 70s when it got in the plan, and at this point it should get zero consideration for funding of any kind from any place.

        Its raison d’etre is for single occupancy vehicle cars to cut over from I-5 to Aurora and to streamline the commute to 520 for Queen Anne and Magnolia. We can’t continue to try and comfort every car in Seattle that wants to get over to Seattle Center and park either.

        Roadways of this configuration do not define neighborhoods, they hold them hostage.

        It’s being paraded as reconnecting the grid. It’s a shrubbed up bypass. Reconnecting the grid (by connecting other streets in Uptown across Aurora) would actually reconnect the grid and get other modes like pedestrians and bicyclists east west without speeding up level of service for commuters in cars and without creating a 9 lane surface freeway. It’s also where the tunnel toll refusers traveling southbound will exit from Aurora over to I-5…you know last exit before toll and all…right?

        Since the tunnel would be 2 lanes each direction, it would be good to shave down Aurora N to what it was just a short while ago when it had parking and fewer car lanes and give more of the Aurora transportation corridor space to buses, planted buffers, and sidewalks. Put a sign on the Mercer St exit that says entering congested urban neighborhood, expect delays.

        It’s a whopping 9 lanes…3 each direction, a center turn / planter median and 2 parking lanes. If you delete one lane each direction, the land acquisition costs go away and it enters the realm of sanity in terms of not building more roadway and not costing 2x or 3x what it needs to.

        It’s an urban renewal project for Valley and a car culture roadway for Mercer. This should not be considered forward, it’s a throw back we should throw back.

        The kind of politicking and propagandizing that Greg Nickels & Jan Drago do to market this junk is disgusting.

        When we asked Grace Crunican at NW District Council how to take a handicap accessible-minded bus ride from Aurora N to South Lake Union Park, she really could not at all visualize the bus routes or the awkward sequence. I mean at all. For us up here in Greenwood / Aurora all we have is the promise of BRT and we’re going to further gunk it up with commuter cars by enabling them on Mercer?

        The stimulus should require the roadways it funds in urban areas if not all areas to be multi-modal and the benefit of the doubt goes to transit, peds, and bikes in my opinion. All things barely served or not served at all by the Mercer Mess Redux. Our Complete Streets Ordinance should be snuffing this out.

        When does the fear of flying that the Downtown folks have when it comes to transitioning into transit-enabled urbanity stop?

      2. Great comment, Kate.

        It seems like many problems in Seattle stem from having a major highway run right through it. I’d love to see Aurora settle down to 2 lanes. I also think connecting the grid back up by introducing stop lights on Aurora would do wonders for easing traffic flow through the city. Why is 99 simply a heavily traveled regular street north of Green Lake, but a stoplight-free freeway through the city? I would think slowing down traffic would be a better idea in dense areas. (somewhere I saw a great picture of a pedestrian standing behind a concrete crossing “sanctuary” that were installed on Aurora after turning it into a highway caused many crossing deaths)

      3. No, the main point is to replace a crumbling structure, to increase capacity above ground (i.e. to I-5 and to create an additional exit at 4th Ave, and to fix the roadway/belowground infrastructure along Spokane St. This will do little to solve the “weave” problem which is located on the West Seattle Bridge, not the Spokane Street Viaduct. BTW: this is primarily for SOV traffic, not transit.

      4. Well, it will make it more reliable only if the buses are out of traffic. Most buses coming to West Seattle originate up north. If there’s a traffic problem (like snow) up north, or an accident or other incident that stops traffic from flowing, then a bus to West Seattle may be non-existant (as it is now). The RR route C to West Seattle looks like it will be linked to the RR route D or E coming from the north. No changes there. And being stuck in traffic during peak hours is the problem now, and will still be a problem for RR – unless there are long-range dedicated bus lanes.

  4. Incidentially, I think even the most pro-road person on the planet would object to a 99 tunnel that doesn’t have a single exit downtown. That would seem to miss the point, no? Are not most of the commuters using today’s viaduct going to work downtown? What exactly is the point of a freeway going right through a major job center without allowing anyone to actually access it? This proposal is politics at its worst and I think it will crash and burn quickly and get replaced by something else.

  5. A lot of people are missing the point on the Mercer St rebuild, and because this happens a lot, I’m going to mention that a) there are other people in Seattle than yourself, these other people have representatives, industry and neighborhood groups etc, and some of them feel they need to use Mercer to get to (or from) the freeway. They may be wrong about that, but until you convince them of that fact, the powers-that-be will have to take their opinions into consideration.

    Secondly, the original plan by the freeway builders was yet another freeway from the Mercer St exit to wherever (the ‘wherever’ part seems a little vague in retrospect). When the highway department proposed rebuilding the viaduct as a bigger freeway, they were still thinking in the ‘wherever’ mode. The plan to rebuild Mercer as a two-way street with traffic lights and street amenities is the final end of the freeway builders dreams. It takes back Valley as a street that belongs to the city, not to the state, and downgrades the Mercer Street ramps to just plain old off-ramp status.

    Maybe the best criticism of the plan is that it deals with old problems, and the best response would be to kick the can down the road and let the old problems die naturally. That’s different from criticizing the city DOT and Mayor Nickels for doing what they think they’re paid to do- come up with solutions and lead the city in adopting them.

Comments are closed.