Portage Bay Bridge (wikimedia)

Dan Bertolet in PubliCola makes a compelling case that we aren’t thinking big enough on 520:

• keep the existing freeway between the water and I-5 (it’s the floating part that’s the safety risk)  [UPDATE: Many commenters have pointed out that this is not correct.]
• for a six-lane design, designate two transit lanes, two HOV lanes, and two general purpose lanes
• for a four-lane design, designate two HOV/transit lanes and two general purpose lanes
• for a four-lane design, limit use to transit and HOV only
• and how about the most radical solution of all: take the bridge out and don’t replace it?  [See also Knute Berger’s thought-provoking piece on this idea.]

The second, third and fourth of these are all clearly awesome from a transit advocate’s perspective, and would presumably cost less than the WSDOT’s current plan.  As a result, they wouldn’t have the effect of robbing funds from higher transit priorities.  More after the jump.

The first option is also cheaper, but is a mixed bag in terms of benefits to transit riders.  It’s clear that downtown-bound buses would be adversely impacted, but might these buses instead be divered to UW and transfer to Link?  This would probably be slower than today’s 255 and 545, and would be disrupted by drawbridge openings, but it would also improve connections to the U-District.

The most radical option — removing the bridge entirely — would probably have positive long-term effects on housing and employment patterns.  In the meantime, however, it would make commutes of any type worse, and by radically increasing the distance between major job centers might cause serious economic damage.

The Mayor has previously suggested turning the HOV lane into a transit lane, a decision that would make HOV riders turn into either SOV drivers or transit passengers.  The crucial question is which group would be larger.  He’s also suggested making sure the bridge is rail-ready, which may or may not be worthwhile depending on how much it costs and who pays for it.

The Council has also made a number of smaller-bore critiques that don’t mess with the 4 GP+2 HOV formula. These are generally worthwhile and, being less significant, are much more likely to be enacted. Meanwhile, Ben has been a voice in the wilderness urging the legislature to fix potential 18th amendment issues, to no avail.

60 Replies to “A Blank Slate on 520”

  1. With the significant (while proven minority) number of folks who would just rather take out ALL the roads, hey, why not remove I-90 as well? Just put in a Lake Washington Ferry and make the Eastsiders pay for the privilege of coming over. (Don’t worry, Microsoft would also have a private, free ferry – but only for Blue Badges. Contractors can swim.)

    1. I’m strongly drawn to the idea of just removing 520, but admit that it’s probably too radical of a change – sometimes ripping a bandaid off too quickly takes the scab with it (note to self: find less graphic metaphors).

      If you took away I-90, where would the trains go? I like the idea of keeping Bellevue and Seattle connected, I just don’t think cars are the best way to do this.

      Maybe a train ferry?

  2. Would idea about replacing the floating part include refitting the land part at least for rapid bus transit?

    Mark Dublin

  3. Regarding “option 1”: The fixed highrise columns are deteriorating and could break in an earthquake, WSDOT engineers said in a 2002 report. This document included photos of a column “spalling” or eroding from the inside out. WSDOT was able to see this after a barge hit a column in 2000. Of course, the floating section is most vulnerable because a windstorm could ruin it; but there is also a good argument that the fixed section should be replaced with something.

    1. I caught that as well, but think Dan’s point is to not change anything on land. Replacing the fixed columns wouldn’t be a high cost.

  4. Dan’s assertion that “it’s the floating part that’s the safety risk” is absolutely incorrect. The Portage Bay viaduct that extends to from I-5 to the floating was constructed with hollow columns that could fail in a major earthquake.

    WSDOT: “The west approach of the floating bridge and connecting Portage Bay and Union Bay bridges of SR 520 are supported by hollow columns. During a major earthquake, the hollow columns could implode and collapse. Engineers designed the SR 520 bridge and its approaches during the 1960s, before modern earthquake design standards existed.”

    Source: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/SR520Bridge/vulnerability.htm
    Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIiuDUgvZpY

    1. Not only are they unsafe in an eartchquake, they’re not particularly safe if run into by a loaded barge (note the incident a few years ago).

  5. Oh, to restore Portage Bay, Montlake and the Arboretum to they way they once (sort of) were. Governor Gregoire, Tear Down That Bridge!

  6. Certainly the radical ‘remove the bridge altogether’ idea is just that (radical), but it is indeed thought-provoking. It makes one reconsider the rationale for building the thing in the first place (because it’s coming down if people do it or not) is really a rationale at all. Of course, there are two sides to this coin, also as mentioned. I-90 stands to get slammed. But does it also promote a SLUT-style streetcar that connects a ferry terminal to downtown Bellevue (and its future Link connections)? It’ll disrupt pretty much every commuting pattern this region knows. Can we build in such a way that commuting means walking a few blocks or a short bus trip?

    I think it’s a really, really interesting issue, but also a challenge to a deeply ingrained part of our culture. If we really do support urban density and mobility, livable cities, and reducing carbon footprints, the issue of whether or not to replace the bridge at all should be seriously discussed.

    1. Vancouver BC has Seabus from the densest part of North Van direct to downtown, with the very minimal Lion’s Gate span the closest alternative and the much larger and newer Trans-Canada Highway bridge to the east a few miles. Seabus runs every few minutes, taking about fifteen minutes dock to dock. Of course, it lands beside the Pacific Center, not in Madison Park, so it’s not really comparable.

      The Canuck’s do love their little ferry.

      They are, however, demonstrably smarter than Americans.

  7. When it comes to highway infrastructure, mere existence is necessity. If it’s there, autophiles will clog it up and find it “indispensable”. Yet where in the world has a freeway ever been demolished in which people pined for its return and protested their new-found lack of options? A don’t-rebuild-520 option is quite the leap of faith, and completely politically impossible, but not nearly as many people would miss it as most people think.

    Even in this quite progressive forum, outright reduction of highway capacity, or for that matter direct desuburbanization, are very rarely discussed. Is it still too radical to do so? Under what conditions might we finally start to talk about it?

    1. > Yet where in the world has a freeway ever been demolished in which people
      > pined for its return and protested their new-found lack of options?

      The collapses of the I35W bridge in Minneapolis springs to mind as a recent example. In general ‘unplanned’ road/freeway demolition tends to remind us how vital they are…

      Desuburbanization is a complex topic in the US because it is tied to income and, through that, to class and racial issues. Housing in a high-density urban area is usually more expensive per-square-foot than housing in a suburban area (think of the construction costs of high-rise buildings vs. townhome tract housing — part of that is that in the US land is quite cheap while labour is relatively expensive). Post WWII suburbanization gave a large class of people access to large homes, and more mobility than they had previously. Moving people from the suburbs back into the city will mean giving them smaller houses than they had previously. In some cases (e.g moving people in from Federal Way) people will end up with smaller houses than their neighbors because they have moved to an area with higher per-capita income.

      I live downtown and like it, but I’m not sure how enthusiastic nuclear families would be about moving from their 3-bedroom house in the burbs to a 2-bedroom condo in Seattle.

      I’m guessing the reason that reduction of highway capacity isn’t discussed is that this is a transit blog, not a no-transit blog ;-) Getting people places efficiently seems to be the point, instead of forcing them all to live and stay in one place.

      1. Your comments on housing pricing is correct, but the real issue is how the access to the suburban homes is provided.

        It could be either through private enterprise, as was done a century ago with the various commuter services offered by the Railroads, along with the land they developed.


        through government supplied infrastructure built using a tax stream that has no direct connection between the cost of a given facilty and the number of users of that facility.

        To put it another way, when the Railroads created their own version of suburban sprawl, but with ‘pedestrian friendly’ (since the automobile hadn’t come into popularity yet) station and town centers, why then, didn’t a different private company construct a competing highway, and charge it’s version of a ‘fare’, via a toll, and make some money?

      2. why then, didn’t a different private company construct a competing highway, and charge it’s version of a ‘fare’, via a toll, and make some money?

        They did dating back all the way to the 1790’s

      3. All public roads today are toll roads, paid for by a continuous cash flow stream from gas & fuel taxes, licensing and RTA taxes, etc. Toll roads a generally privately developed and operated at a profit, not by government, at least in this country.

      4. Roads receive huge subsidies from other tax sources. Everything from the federal and state governments having to bolster their highway funds with general fund revenue to cities and counties paying for local roads out of property and sales taxes. Furthermore governments at all levels were building roads long before there was a gas tax.

        I’m not sure what country you’re in but in the US the vast majority of toll roads, bridges, and tunnels have been built and operated by various government agencies. There are but a handful of privately developed and operated toll roads. Recently there have been some toll roads and bridges where operation has been turned over to a private company in exchange for a fee, but those are an exception as well.

      5. “All public roads today are toll roads, paid for by a continuous cash flow stream from gas & fuel taxes, licensing and RTA taxes, etc”

        Maybe in Middle Earth, but not where I live. Here in suburban King County most gas tax revenue goes to pay for new freeway construction, while the rest of our roads crumble due to deferring regular maintenance. Local roads are mostly paid for by property and sales taxes, in fact, about an eighth of my property taxes go to King County to take care of the roads by my house, even though I can’t remember the last time my road was patched, painted, or plowed in the winter. In Seattle only about 7% of SDOT’s budget comes from gas taxes, even though the majority of their expenditures are on road projects. The average driver only pays about $350 a year in gas taxes, less than what it costs to get cable TV.

      6. But Cable TV is a per household expense and you’re comparing it to a per driver expense. And as you point out we pay much more to roads than just gas tax. I assume you’d like garbage collection which sort of requires roads to you’re property. Ditto the ability for fire and aid units? So property tax for local roads is totally appropriate. Try selling a piece of land locked property some time. A friend’s parents actually owned such a lot in Seattle. This was back in the 70’s but it was only worth a couple thousand dollars.

      7. “All public roads today are toll roads, paid for by a continuous cash flow stream from gas & fuel taxes, licensing and RTA taxes, etc. Toll roads a generally privately developed and operated at a profit, not by government, at least in this country.”

        There is NO connection between the cost and usage of a given roadway, and the amount of taxes paid by those users.

        All Public roads are NOT Toll Roads, by virtue of the gas tax.
        The Gas Tax is NOT a user-fee.

        Essentially, I am OVER-TAXED via the gas tax, and without any say, it gets spent wherever the political winds decide, and the users of those high-priced mega-project roadways pay a very small percentage of the cost if you assign the gas tax portion based on the gas the users burn while using that facility. (from 3% to 30%)

      8. “I assume you’d like garbage collection which sort of requires roads to you’re property. Ditto the ability for fire and aid units? So property tax for local roads is totally appropriate.”

        I didn’t say they were inappropriate. In fact, I don’t recall saying I had a problem with paying these taxes. What I have a problem with is people who think the gas tax is some magical never-ending stream of money that pays for every road related expense, because it doesn’t. If the gas tax were a true user fee it would generate sufficient revenue to pay for both new road construction and maintenance of existing roads, and would have to be spent in the areas it was collected, but it doesn’t and it isn’t. We spend huge amounts of money to build new road capacity and encourage driving to farther flung parts of the county while letting existing infrastructure crumble and leaving local governments to foot the bill. And then we give our local roads over to cars, while giving short shrift to pedestrians and cyclists, even though everyone pays for local roads, whether they drive or not.

        And BTW, most neighborhood road construction is and was paid for by property developers, and is therefore paid for by property owners, whether they drive or not. The roads are then deeded over to the city or county, who are supposed to maintain them with property tax revenue.

      9. “Housing in a high-density urban area is usually more expensive per-square-foot than housing in a suburban area”

        That’s another way of saying that more people are realizing suburbia sucks. We should have all bought houses on Capitol Hill and Rainier Valley in the 1970s and 80s when they were practically giving them away, but none of us realized (or at least my family and friends didn’t) that real estate was going to go up to such crazy levels.

      10. In city property has been hot for a long time. I think a lot of people realized it but just couldn’t afford to buy in. Those big houses on Capitol Hill have been expensive for 20 years (at least). Ballard doubled or tripled in the 90’s. We were looking hard in Lake City for our first house back in ’84 but ended up in Woodinville (which was the back of beyond at that time) because we just couldn’t quite afford Seattle. Best deal in Lake City was $60k for a two story fixer upper. It was considerably more square feet than our 910sqft “starter castle” in Woodinville ($48k in ’84) but it was on a typical city lot vs. a 1/2 acre. Would have bought the place in Lake City but the bank wouldn’t qualify us for the loan amount (even though it was about the same or less (with tax advantages) as we’d been paying in rent for four years.

  8. The east and west highrise don’t meet current highway safety standards and doubt there’s a way with the condition the columns are in that the bridge deck could be widen to even what is required for a four lane configuration. It would be pointless to rebuild a four lane bridge anyway.

    One hair brained idea I had to squeeze a few more years out of the existing pontoons was to rotomold giant plastic channels with fiber reinforced plastic. These would then slip around the bottom and add buoyancy and protect the cracking concrete from being in contact with the water. You’d float them into place of course by filling with water and then pumping air back in when they were under the bridge and in place. Working around the anchor lines would be tricky. I’m guessing each one could be removed individually and the reattached before moving on to the next one. You’d make it with enough compartments that a hole in one (or several) wouldn’t be an issue. This would also allow adding a bike and pedestrian path.

  9. Interesting. This past Sunday my girlfriend (who commutes over that damn bridge every day and hates it) were relaxing in Madison Park and she mentioned the idea of replacing the bridge with a passenger ferry. It certainly is nice to think about. I would use it frequently, for fun, like I do the Puget Sound ferries.

    1. The old ferry pier was at the very end of Madison…bring back the cable car and the ferry and now there’s a fun trip :) Madison is the only street in Seattle that connects the Bay and Lake Washington!

  10. I think all this discussion of removing the 520 bridge entirely is ridiculous. I’m strongly against any freeway expansion, but there’s a difference between freeways and bridges. For freeways, there are plenty of viable (and sometimes faster) alternate routes on surface streets and plenty of transit. If you don’t have the 520 bridge, you don’t have a viable way to get across the lake. Yes, I like passenger ferries, but they can only work when there are two destinations that are right next to the water, and the vast majority of the 520’s transit market comes from riders far away from Lake Washington. We need the 520 bridge, we just need to do it right. If we really were doing it right, we would ditch the Portage Bay viaduct and have the bridge end at Husky Stadium, with light rail in the middle and completely avoiding the Arboretum.

    1. Well, actually ferries work fine if ONE end of the trip is right next to the water. It’s only if BOTH ends are far from the water that they start to be a bit too much trouble.

      Unfortunately that seems likely to be the case for many trips on SR520.

  11. Martin, when you suggest diverting 520 buses like 255 and 545 to UW/Husky and riders transferring to Link, isn’t that a contradiction of the statement that Link is at capacity and could not accept light rail trains coming off 520, or transfers from them? Either there is room for Eastside riders headed downtown, or there isn’t.

    1. The statement that Link will be at capacity was referring to headways. With East Link and Central Link trains both running DSTT Northgate, trains will be running 2-3 minutes apart, which is about as short of a headway as possible. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the trains themselves will be completely packed.

      1. Then wouldn’t it be possible to route Link trains from 520 down toward Seatac and trains from Northgate to Bellevue (for example)?

      2. Northgate to Bellevue – I mean via I-90, planned East Link route. And trains coming from 520 to serve the MLK/Seatac route.

      3. The problem is that to deal with the anticipated demand on North Link from Lynnwood south to downtown, trains will need to be run far more frequently than on either East Link or Central Link. This is why Sound Transit plans on running trains from Lynnwood to both Overlake and SeaTac / Federal Way. This way the frequency will be doubled on the line north of downtown.

        If there ever were a 520 line it would be easier for people to just transfer in the U-District. There will be space on North Link trains for transferees from the 520 line due to people getting off in the U-District, there just won’t be room in the tunnels for trains from 520, AFAIK.

  12. Passenger ferry from Sand Point to Kirkland with transit connections at both ends would be nice.

    Seems like we had something like that once, though, and either no one rode it or it was too expensive to operate.

  13. This train fetish blog (masquerading as a public transit blog) is funny. First Park & Rides were evil. Then culdesacs were evil. Then buses that competed with light rail were evil. Then Kemper Freeman was evil. Then Surrey Downs was evil. Now bridges are evil?

    1. Cul de sacs are evil, ask any police officer. Oops, gotta go, international business call…

      1. Agreed, cul de sacs were always evil. It’s not that the bridge is evil; simply that its replacement has the potential to be.

      2. The replacement bridge will compound the “evil” done by the first bridge upon Portage Bay and the Arboretum by several orders of magnitude

      3. Well not exactly. Cul de sacs can be actually be very good if there are clear and nice non-motorized connections between roads. The road network and the pedestrian/bicycle network are different although they are mostly formed by streets.

    2. And mind you, Sam, that commenters’ opinions are distinct from those of the STB editorial board. As commenters we’re allowed to be a little more off-the-cuff. =) STB has editorialized against rail on numerous occasions, most recently on 520 but also against Eastside commuter rail. Further, they’ve editorialized against electrification on numerous occasions on account of cost. We may all like trains, yes, but this is a professional blog and the opinions of Martin, Ben, John, Adam, Oran et. al. are quite well-informed. Put the railfan straw man back in the damn cornfield already.

      1. Speaking of which, is there a “Seattle Highway” blog, a “Seattle Cul-de-Sac” blog, a “Seattle Park & Ride Blog” ?

        It would be nice to have these conversations on blogs that want to sell a point of view.

      2. WSDOT has a blog. There is a conservative blog written by someone in the Vancouver area (WA no BC).

      3. STB has editorialized against rail on numerous occasions, most recently on 520 but also against Eastside commuter rail.

        As misguided as that last opinion is… ;-)

      4. “And mind you, Sam, that commenters’ opinions are distinct from those of the STB editorial board.”

        And the individual opinions of the editors are distinct from an official blog position. It’s only an official blog position when the editors say, “We’ve agreed that X is the blog’s official position.” Most articles don’t say that. They say, “I think that…” So saying that STB is for this or against that can be misleading.

        “they’ve editorialized against electrification on numerous occasions on account of cost”

        I thought at first you were talking about trolleybuses, but I guess you mean mainline train electrification. There seems to be a strong opinion against mainline electrification (too much money for too little benefit, when we can get more benefit elsewhere). But opinions on trolleybuses seem to be mixed: some think they’re almost as good as streetcars, and others wonder if they’re worth expanding, but few agree with getting rid of them.

      5. Mainline electrification is definitely worth it, but only if the freight trains are electrified too… due to network effects, it ends up being a gigantic all-or-nothing project where it’s only worthwhile if the entire BNSF system, Chicago-LA-Seattle, and certain connecting lines are electrified. Even then it’s only worthwhile if the price of oil goes up significantly, but it will, so it is.

    3. Amen to your comments. It seems as if the Seattle kool-aid kids want a greater Pugetopolis populated by Seattle Stepford wives (and families!). Dream all you want about mandating your authoritarian view of the world, “Transit Bloggers”, more people in this country think independently than secumb to the warped social engineering y’all are putting forth!! Please stop wasting so much energy trying to micro-manage other peoples’ lives.

  14. Since so many have brought up a passenger ferry as a replacemnt to 520, how about ending the ferry at UW? That would get us an instant connection to Link and therefore downtown. On the other end we could link with Kirkland and with 520, except convert 520 to terminus of east-side rail. There’d even be room on what is now 520 for a park-and-ride and cul de sac for [Sam].

    1. I remember reading somewhere that this was considered at some point. The problem is that it’s about a quarter mile from the Waterfront Activities Center dock to Husky Stadium Station, up a hill and through a parking lot.

  15. 520 bridge should be removed permanently. No replacement.

    Same for Viaduct.

    They could get rid of both tomorrow and traffic would improve measurably.

    Let’s try it for a month.

    I’m taking bets.

  16. if the limited access highways were tolled the difference between general purpose and HOV lanes would disappear, as all would be moving at the optimal 45 mph. this makes some the radical options feasible. there should be better terms for the tolled general-purpose and tolled HOV lanes; HOT does not do it.

    1. Yes travel speeds will certainly increase but there is still going to be congestion, especially non-reoccurring congestion caused by weather/accidents/etc.

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