Gotta love these WSDOT videos.  When does SR520 have this traffic volume? 2AM?

Of the officially considered SR 520 bridge options, A+ is superior to A, K, L, and M for use as a starting point to develop a truly transit-friendly interchange design.

Since gas taxes must be used for roads, a project that mainly improves seismic robustness and extends the HOV lane across the bridge is a particularly attractive use.  However, gas taxes will cover only about half the cost of a new SR520 bridge. The rest will come out of a different revenue source, one that could potentially be used for light rail expansion or other worthy transit projects.  More after the jump.

If more ambitious plans were covered by a higher gas tax, we’d be more willing to consider them. With that apparently off the table, A+ has the virtue of being just about funded if tolls are assessed on SR520 and I-90. Obviously, we’d prefer if toll revenue were saved for transit, but using tolling to pay for highways is the least bad option and one that taps a source politically difficult to use for public transportation.

The other official options involve some form of a direct connection from the bridge to the Husky Stadium parking lot using a new crossing of the Montlake cut.  These don’t meet any sort of transit-oriented cost-benefit test.  First of all, the new crossing would be open to general purpose traffic, making the time advantage for buses debatable. Second, as we’ve argued before, using the UW Link station to connect from the Eastside to downtown Seattle (and vice versa) will largely be an off-peak activity. Spending well over $1 billion more, and assuming substantial technical risk, on a bus tunnel that slightly enhances service for a small number of off-peak travelers is not a sensible use of potential transit dollars.

We’re glad the bridge is being designed to accomodate later light rail expansion, but it’s premature to think that any highway configuration makes light rail over 520 likely in the near future. No funding exists to build such a line. There is no agreement that, should significant funding authority become available, 520 should be a priority for the North King or East King subareas. There is no consensus on where it would go once it reached the Eastside, nor is there any evidence that Eastsiders would be interested in collecting the revenue necessary for their share. Making the questionable assumption that the relevant agencies can kick autos out of a new Montlake crossing, you still have the rail capacity issues at UW Station unless you extend the line further, incurring further costs in a rail segment that is frankly a lower priority than other segments on both sides of the lake.

The Stranger suggests Seattle leaders think big about citywide tolling to fund a better connection. We applaud this kind of creative attempt to acquire money for more transit-friendly solutions. However, a citywide revenue program deserves to fund the City of Seattle’s highest priorities, which should not be enhancing bus trips to and from the Eastside. There are too many unmet needs, most obviously accelerating Northgate and getting high-quality light rail from Ballard to West Seattle through a new transit tunnel downtown.

We certainly don’t mean to suggest that there are no optimizations that can be made to the A+ design.  The most important objective is to ensure rapid movement of buses through the Montlake corridor, probably at the expense of cars.  For example, we could use the additional capacity provided by the second bascule bridge as a business access and transit (BAT) lane, allowing rapid connections to the light rail station when the drawbridge is down. We also support an HOV or transit-only Montlake exit, although we doubt that would be acceptable to other stakeholders.

Regardless, the K, L, and M options should be dismissed, as A+ is the lowest-cost “official” option that preserves funding authority for higher transit priorities.

32 Replies to “Editorial: 520 Options K, L, M Aren’t Worth It”

  1. I completely agree, Martin. I’d even like to see an A- option of just replacing the floating sections and the bridge sections that have structural issues. That should hit the gas tax budget.

      1. I’m not a fan of adding paved lanes for any reason. Need transit lanes? Convert one of the general purpose lanes.

      2. I would agree, but going down to one general-purpose lane, and no way for SOVs to get around accidents, is a political non-starter.

      3. I’m told that “taking” of GP lanes for HOV lanes is against State law. But, if you’re replacing bridge sections you can replace them with a six lane configuration that would allow HOV access to the west side. They you convert the existing flyer stop to center HOV exit/entrance ramps. Center HOV lanes for the eastside are already designed and just need funding. The pontoons are already under construction (just need to eliminate the “stilts”). The bridge approaches to the floating section are a big issue but workable if built as two “three” lane structures which are actually wide enough to restripe for four lanes ala R8A. You just lose the breakdown lane until the second set is open. Next you work on Portage Bay. All incremental improvements that can be done within budget and don’t require the massive political give away of all the lids in all the pork pie plans proposed.

      4. Are the approach spans deficient due only to the “hollow” nature of the piles, as witnessed by the barge collision that got this emergency replacement program going?
        If so, adding two more lanes on the North side of the approaches, connected to the existing span, and built with piles capable of withstanding a collision would effectively ‘armor’ the rest of the structure. Existing piles could be wrapped and grout injected for further stability.
        Seems like adding two lanes is a bunch cheaper than rebuilding the whole thing.

      5. Well, they’re deficient in that they don’t line up with the propose new bridge and it’s connections on each end. The replacement bridge is shifted some 100′ north of the current alignment which is more of an issue going forward for the west side than the east side (probably better for the east side if they left it where it is). From what I’ve gathered from WSDOT (and you never know if you’re getting the real story or “facts of convenience”) the hollow tubes are subject to buckling in the event of “the big one”. Filling the tubes or wrapping them with a composite layer are both possible fixes.

  2. It seems hypocritical to complain about the cost of light rail when we are building massive projects like a new floating bridge(2 billion to over 4 billion dollars) and a tunnel to replace the viaduct(4.24 billion) Both cost far more than light rail.

    1. The combined cost of the 520 Bridge and the Viaduct would pay for all of the Amtrak Cascades improvements for 110mph running plus service to Eastern Washington.

      1. and for 1/20th the cost of the 520 project we could implement the entire Seattle bike master plan (different funding sources/districts/agencies, i know, but still provides some perspective)

  3. How much would it cost to install four elevators, and hire security for the Montlake Freeway Station, to make the flyover stops ADA compliant and a safer location at which to hang out?

    If we are to lose the flyover stops, then we will need all-day frequent bus service from every major eastside transit center and park&ride to UW and downtown (separate routes), and vice versa, funded from 520 tolling, plus make the second drawbridge transit (not HOV, but transit) only, with easy upgradability to turning the HOV lanes into light rail lines.

    Once the tolling is installed, keep it in perpetuity to fund all safety work and construction of alternate routes (e.g. light rail from UW to the eastside via various routes).

    Short of that, kill this giga-expensive project.

    1. Brent,

      It would be nice to have the flyer stops, but that’s really not the place to stand and die on this project. It’s much better to put political and fiscal effort into ensuring transit flows effectively on Montlake Blvd. If that happens, everything else takes care of itself (See our post on the topic).

      1. I’ve said this before in previous posts about the 520 Westside options, but to my mind one of the best things that could be done would be to provide two-way HOV access to 520 with the ramps configured to provide transit stops at Montlake Blvd. and to allow a straight shot from one off ramp to the corresponding on-ramp. This keeps something like the flyer stop and would reduce traffic volumes on Montlake some as it would likely require removing the SOV EB off-ramp and WB on-ramp. 520 should NOT be providing in-city freeway access for non-transit users.

        The other transit related improvement I’d suggest is that any lanes added by a second bascule bridge across Montlake cut be HOV only.

        The third thing doesn’t really help transit, but I do think the Arboretum ramps on Lake Washington Blvd. need to go away for good. There is no good reason a road through a major regional park should be subjected to the traffic volumes it currently handles.

      2. Chris,

        I don’t see the engineering of a pull-off-go-back-on stop at Montlake as feasible or affordable.

        Consider this alternative: Extend one of the eastside routes as the equivalent of route 44 through the U, Wallingford, and on to Ballard. The route would model the route on Sound Transit’s future light rail study map. Give people in neighborhoods along that route a 1-seat ride to some eastside destinations, like Microsoft then downtown Redmond. Consider other route couplings, like the 48 from 85th Ave NW to downtown Kirkland.

        We already have a Sound Transit route, 556, from Northgate through campus, then on to Bellevue, and it is fairly popular. Let’s try more of these couplings, and see if we can get the lege to allow 520 tolling to fund them. After all, these bus routes would be used to relieve congestion on the bridge, and can do so for a fraction of the cost of building new lanes.

      3. You already have the 542 (Redmond-UW) coming soon. As for extending that all the way to Ballard, I don’t thing it’s at all possible to have single-seat rides between all neighborhood pairs across the lake.

        I’m not sure why a 1-seat ride from Ballard to Redmond is critical to the 520 plan.

      4. I’m not saying have all pairings. I’m just saying don’t dead-end the eastside routes in campus, and don’t dead-end the westside routes there either. By coupling, it makes sure the routes run the length of campus, rather than, say, making everyone who comes from the eastside have to transfer at Husky Stadium to get to the other side of campus.

        By coupling, we would also have a foot in the door to get tolls to pay for more service, instead of just the eastside segment. The Ballard-to-somewhere-on-the-eastside route, in particular, would give us the opportunity to see if the ridership is there for a 520 rail route sooner rather than later, and might give us the chance to test different couplings for the best 520 rail route long before it gets built.

        I understand the bus subsidy from the 520 tolls would currently only be for some runs going from Kirkland and Bellevue to downtown, rather than all the buses crossing 520. That’s still way too pathetically little, and way too temporary, for me to go along with this project, when Montlake is going to get more congested for buses, and access to getting from UW to the eastside will only get worse… at a price tag of $4.5 billion.

      5. I certainly agree this type of layout should be in the supplemental DEIS. The clover leaf (what three lanes wide plus shoulders + the damn EB off ramp) is a huge waste of space.

        I agree the removal of the Arboretum ramps should be a priority. Unfortunately with A+ this would kill transit mobility through the Montlake interchange because all traffic currently using the Arboretum as a cut through route would overwhelm Montlake. Accepting A+ assures the Arboretum ramps will stay. Don’t believe it, try to get concrete assurances that removal is part of the agreed upon plan!

        Removing the SOV EB off-ramp and WB on-ramp is a start but really the only way it’s going to work is to restrict SOV access entirely during peak hours. K or M had potential if planned with the U Link station but that’s water under the Montlake Bridge now. These two projects while intimately linked are planned in total isolation.

      1. At this point I’d settle for just different legislators. You vote for the same old people you get the same old thing.

      2. I rarely vote for incumbents unless there is a truly compelling reason to do so. Far, far too many of them are in the pockets of the oil/highway tyranny almost from day one of their first terms.

  4. If I thought there was a chance that the additional billion dollars that options K, L, and M cost would be spent on transit then I would agree with you. However that billion dollars is much more likely going to widen I-405.

  5. A few comments:

    1) Removing the Arboretum ramps wouldn’t get much traffic out of the Arboretum. It would still be the best way to get from Madison Valley/Park/Madrona, to either 520 in either direction or to the University District. I do like that they’ve moved them closer to Montlake to encourage people from Capitol Hill to use Montlake, I had suggested this to WSDOT for plans that involved a Pacific interchange, but the onramp seems kind of unnecessary given that simply going straight on Lake Washington a little further will get you to the same place.

    2) On removing the flyer — doubling the need for buses won’t double their funding. The 545 works well for me and others because it is a very regular bus, even at the non-peak times that Microsoft employees often find themselves commuting. Now if you’re willing to run just as many 545s as you would otherwise and run that many 542s, you can serve the same crowd just as well as they are served now at twice the expense, but otherwise you either need the flyer stop or you need to make the connection between the 542 and Husky Stadium good enough that you can get rid of the 545. I don’t believe the first of these will happen, and I’m concerned the others might not either. This is a very heavily used connection, accounting for close to half the eastbound commuters, and a lot of them don’t walk there. The bus I take to the flyer is much less regular than the 545; I can’t really schedule myself around the 545 (or 542), so any increase in headways is just extra standing around time for me and would be a compelling reason to buy a second car so I could drive more often.

    1. The 44 is the most heavily-used and most frequent non-downtown westside route going to UW. If the 542 were to absorb the 44 and match the frequency (which I suspect will already be the case) then coupling these two routes moves the 44 into being funded by ST, hopefully from 520 tolls, and saves thousands of human-hours every day that would have been wasted on deboarding, waiting, and reboarding. If we want a light rail line from Ballard to Redmond, let’s test that route as a rapid bus route.

      About the only long-term positive we can get out of the 520 enlargement is funding and a transit-only access path from 520 to Husky Stadium. The negatives of widening 520 are huge, especially the price tag. Just getting subsidies for a few more runs to downtown that may go away with the opening of Husky Stadium Station, losing the flyover stops, and increasing congestion for the path buses have to take to campus by keeping them on general-purpose streets, is a fool’s bargain.

      1. Are you sure it’s not the 48? Anyway, combining the 44 and 542 wouldn’t cover much of the cost of the 542, and I don’t know how big of a fraction of current montlake flyer users this would cover — the 44 currently only goes to the flyer stop when it becomes the 43, which is not most of the time.

      2. Two huge problems with pairing the 44 with a Eastside express. First is the congestion on Pacific, 15th NE, N/NE 45th, and NW Market would hurt the reliability of the entire route. Second is the 44 is an ETB route and combining it with an Eastside route means dropping the electrification. I’m pretty dead set against any route changes that result in a major section of the ETB OCS being abandoned.

        The 48 has pretty heavy ridership between Crown Hill and the UW. Perhaps a better idea would be to combine the 48 with the 542?

      3. Combining the 48 and 542 would also plant Sound Transit’s “Regional T” in Ballard, a place up until now unknown to Sound Transit planners, if not the Sound Transit tax collectors.

      4. You guys can’t be serious about combining a major city route with a suburban express. They serve completely different markets, and the reliability issue would harm both segments.

        What would make sense is a Ballard-Redmond BRT as a demonstration for future light rail. (Or Ballard-Kirkland.) As BRT it would make fewer stops than the 44 or 48, and would likely go on less congested streets (40th or Northlake rather than 45th). (50th has also been recommended for Ballard-UW rapid transit, but it’s too far from Montlake for an Eastside route.)

  6. Let me take a step back and rephrase my suggested requests to WSDOT in order to not vociferously oppose the 520 widening:

    1. Toll subsidization of *all* bus routes crossing SR 520, as they are each a small, and relatively inexpensive, piece of the 520 congestion relief puzzle.

    2. A transit-only path between 520 and the UW campus, upgradable to becoming a light rail track.

    We won’t really know the best route pairings around the system until a year or so of ORCA data is in. (Metro and ST would be able to churn out data showing how many overlapping card users each pair of routes had, and what times of day.) My pairing suggestion was in order to get more of our heaviest routes paid for with toll money instead of sales tax, but it can wait a couple years if we can get point 1 above agreed to.

    If Rep. Clibborn is so desperate to get this done, she should be willing to make this project as transit-friendly as reasonably affordable.

  7. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be saying that because planning hasn’t really been done for a 520 rail route, we shouldn’t build a huge long-term mega project to accommodate it. I completely disagree with this, it’s the kind of thinking that has made it hard for us to do transit projects today. We need to plan for the future, and there will be a 520 light rail route in the future, so we need to figure that into the new 520 bridge.

    1. I specifically say we’re pleased the bridge is designed to accommodate rail. It’s stupid, however, to build a Cut crossing in the hopes you could one day kick out the cars and put in rails.

  8. ST Route 542 will be a two-way peak-only service with 15-minute headway. it will not be a good candidate to interline with a north Seattle route.

    But, the general concept has some merit. an eastside route could be a restructured Route 271 to BTC only; the westside candidates could be routes 48N, 67, or the tails of routes 71, 72, and 73 beyond U Heights. between 2016 and 2020, when Link’s NE 45th Street station is expected to open, it would be handy to get north Seattle riders to the UW stadium station without the long walk from and to Stevens Way. the interlined pair should have headways of 10 minutes in the peak periods and 10-15 in the midday. after tolling, SR-520 will flow more reliably.

    back to the bridge. the Legislature should use tolling to manage demand on the highway in additon to raising revenue. perhaps SR-520 could have six lanes between Redmond and Montlake and only four lanes between Montlake and I-5. the Montlake freeway stops could then be retained for their great transfer opportunities to and from routes 255 and 545. the state would save on construction cost. without the freeway stops, riders oriented between Capitol Hill and the eastide will have to back track to the Pacific Triangle to access less frequent bus routes crossing SR-520.

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