Today, the Mayor has released the report his office commissioned with Nelson/Nygaard to determine the feasibility of light rail on 520. This study was reportedly presented to the Mayor’s office last week, but its release was delayed until today. It’s finally come with a blog post from the Mayor, essentially framing it in the most positive tone possible.
The obstacles the report highlights are similar to what we’ve discussed here in comment threads:
- The pontoons would have to be designed to accommodate the weight of trains, and are not.
- The west approach (meaning through the arboretum) would have to be at least 10 feet wider than the current A+ alternative to accommodate light rail without having to significantly modify the structure later.
- Through the arboretum, the bridge must be wider (or have a gap) to allow light rail to enter and exit the center HOV lanes and diverge from the freeway.
- From there are four choices for getting from 520 to the University – a flyover bridge starting out in the middle of the arboretum, a low level bridge along the east edge of the Montlake Cut, a tunnel underneath the Cut, or a surface option along Montlake Boulevard.
Our analysis after the jump:
To begin with, the report assumes that the center HOV lanes would be replaced with LRT – not operated jointly. This study appears to put bus routes such as the 255 and 545 back into congested general purpose lanes. Projected bus ridership across 520 in 2020 is some 25,000 weekday trips – but the report assumes heavy demand-based tolling to keep traffic flowing in the general purpose lanes. This might work, but it’s at odds with WSDOT’s current policies.
The report does fundamentally call out that the 520 bridge structure isn’t being designed to accommodate light rail. But didn’t we know this two years ago? The state made design changes to preclude light rail in early 2008. The state would have to add unknown cost and, according to the report, at least six months of delay, to redesign the bridge to handle the later addition of rail. But the governor and legislature already made that decision to cut costs – without a funding source for a design change, it’s not likely that could happen.
A big takeaway from this report is the bridge footprint that light rail would require. Much of the neighborhood opposition to the new 520 bridge comes from a desire that it have a smaller footprint than that currently proposed in A+. Including light rail would require that it be significantly wider right through the middle of the arboretum. A number of the people and groups at McGinn’s 520 press conference last month were there specifically because they want a smaller bridge. Redesigning the bridge to accommodate light rail by making it wider would certainly dilute the apparent support 520 light rail has today.
The last thing that really comes across here is that while there are several corridors that could be served on both sides of the bridge, the majority run from the University District at 45th down to 520, across the lake, and back up to Kirkland. They would all require a set of political nightmares: A different bridge design from the state with higher impact on the arboretum, a new crossing of UW campus, a new crossing of the Montlake neighborhood and the ship canal, and a long haul from 520 to Kirkland through low density neighborhoods. Some of them would likely react just as Surrey Downs has.
Consider for a moment the options here. Sound Transit supports A+, as it serves buses fanning out to all the cities on the eastside. Transit supporter and former state transportation commissioner Virginia Gunby opined for it here last year. The state has already agreed to it, with the only fights remaining for bus funding to replace losing the Montlake flyer stop, and ensuring HOV access from 520 to the light rail station. Those are attainable goals, and they would well serve communities on both sides of the lake.
Light rail would only go over 520 out of supposed convenience – but I think we can lay to rest now any notion that it would be convenient, and furthermore, it would probably represent a huge investment on Seattle’s part to build a new tunnel where we’ll already have one. For costs like that, both financial and political, why not do it right? First, let’s focus our attention on building transit from the city center to Ballard and West Seattle. In twenty years, when we’re building from the UW to Ballard, chew on this:
Maybe it’s a new bridge, maybe it’s under the water, don’t worry about that now – we probably won’t even cross the lake in the first round. But if we want to build transit for the long term, we need to stop looking at freeways and start considering the urban centers and destinations where we really need transit to go.