PubliCola reports on a letter (text here) the Seattle City Council sent to WSDOT about modifications to the west side of the 520 bridge. It’s worth going into in some detail, as a pretty good example of what can be achieved to improve transit without sending WSDOT back to the drawing board.

Crucially, the Council asserts that the proposed modifications fit within the $4.65 billion budget for the project and require no additional EIS, preventing delays. I’m not deeply concerned about avoiding delays for their own sake, but am eager to avoid pouring substantial additional resources into marginal transit improvements.

There are about a dozen transit-related recommendations, most of which are great; some are suboptimal but hardly terrible. More after the jump.

The Good:

  • Signal priority and “queue jumps” for transit at key intersections. This is a pretty obvious requirement to have a decent connection between bridge and light rail station.
  • Dedicated HOV/transit lanes on Montlake Blvd, at least between the Link Station and Lake Washington Blvd., and possibly further up Montlake and as far South as Madison and 23rd Ave. Again, a no-brainer.
  • Direct mitigation funds to improve the pedestrian environment around the UW station.
  • Split the bridge through Foster Island and the Arboretum to allow light rail in future. Avoid doing anything else stupid, like construct an overpass that would have to be demolished, that blocks construction of light rail later.
  • Build bike/ped routes to Seattle standards: 16 ft for ped routes, 12 ft. for bicycles.
  • Put mandatory triggers in the law to raise HOV thresholds when speeds fall below 45 mph more than 5% of the time; come up with general-purpose lane performance standards and institute dynamic tolling to achieve them.
  • Begin environmental review of a “high bridge” over the cut for light rail or BRT, before construction plans for the west side are finalized.

The Bad:

  • Move HOV/Transit ramps to exit at 24th Ave. instead of Montlake Blvd. This adds about two blocks of surface streets for buses to traverse and is done to reduce impacts on the neighborhood. It’s a slight inconvenience to riders.
  • The State should “work with Metro and ST to ensure… an adequate base level of mid-day service” over 520. There should really be an explicit request for some tolling funds to go to this purpose.
  • The Montlake flyer stops do not figure in this change request. I’ve editorialized before that this is a bummer but is less of a big deal than people think.
  • No mention of Ben’s lonely crusade to explicitly designate the tolling revenue for potential rail-related portions of the bridge, so as to avoid 18th-amendment-related lawsuits in the future.

Also of interest, the Council agrees with John that adding additional pontoons for light rail at this time is both premature and prohibitively expensive.

All in all, these seem like reasonable suggestions that the State should accept, although no one ever went broke betting on the fundamental malice of our State government towards transit-related causes. Against my expectations, the Mayor’s separate Nelson/Nygaard study did offer some useful and low-cost critiques of simple modifications that make light rail in the future more plausible.

33 Replies to “Council Issues 520 Recommendations”

  1. Move HOV/Transit ramps to exit at 24th Ave.

    I’d like this one if they’d just make two more changes with it:

    – Scrap second Montlake Blvd drawbridge, put a transit/bike drawbridge at 24th-Pacific instead
    – Add HOV ramps going both directions on 520 (though the Seattle bound ramps can be transit only), and put bus stops on those ramps, easily accessible across the lid from Montlake Blvd or across the drawbridge from UW.

    1. It seems like we could even think beyond bridge design. I think passenger ferry service would be viable across the lake as well. Holds lots of people, no sitting in traffic and you could arrive right to South Lake Union on an already built streetcar line.

      1. Only the tourists would ride the ferry. Let’s say you drive to the terminal in 10minutes, then you wait for the ferry for about 20 minutes for another 20 minute ferry ride. Someone with a car could get to Seattle across I-90 or 522 in half the time assuming there’s no traffic.

        Seattle is already the “boating capital” of the world… now we need RAIL!


      2. Or you could assume that there WOULD be traffic, and that you would take transit to and from the ferry that is in sync with the sailings and not have to wait. Kind of the opposite of your description. Of course by comparison driving is more convenient if there isn’t traffic and also describe a long wait for transit.

        People will do whatever they are incentivized to do. I fully realize there is about a .1% chance of there actually being a passenger ferry but I do think properly implemented it could work nicely. We have a natural right of way across the water, I think it would be great to take advantage of it.

  2. Won’t putting the HOV exits onto 24th mean you can replicate the effect of the Montlake flyer stops? Westbound busses exit via the HOV ramps, stop at a bus stop between 24th and Montlake Blvd, and then re-enter the highway from the Montlake blvd exit. Do the same thing in the opposite direction, eastbound busses leave the highway at montlake, stop, and then re-enter the highway on the HOV exits at 24th. Sure, not as fast as direct flyer stops (due to the additional traffic light at the exits, but better than nothing?

  3. I don’t agree that toll revenue should be diverted to transit agencies, when the state is already planning to exempt transit vehicles from tolls (which, by the way, isn’t required).

    Funding for the bridge is already tight, and diverting hundreds of thousands (or millions) will significantly impact the State’s ability to finance the project.

    Suggesting the State should cover the operating expenses of expanded service is like saying the State should pay Sound Transit to operate trains across I-90.

    1. Trains carry a lot more people, so really the state should pay sound transit to operate trains, whether through tolling or another mechanism. They probably won’t do it, but your premise is not the no-brainer you think it is. High-capacity transit helps reduce congestion and wear-and-tear on the bridge, so why shouldn’t tolling support transit?

    2. I tend to agree Matt. I understand that funding for public transit (like most public funding) is seriously squeezed right now, but dedicating road tolls to transit would outrage those paying them. Exempting transit from tolls, providing special on/off ramps and other transit prioritization is subsidy enough.

      This brings up a whole can of worms around how to subsidize public transit. How do regions such as ours fund things that improve quality of life, reduce congestion, help low-income people get to work, and offer regionally-strategic value in terms of reduced dependence on energy, lower emissions/polution, and a myriad of other benefits? Currently we do it mainly through sales tax and property tax. Is this optimal? I don’t know. I have more to say but I’m out of time ;-)

    3. Tolls on the Bay Bridge subsidize transit, I hear. Not sure if it’s BART in particular or the AC buses. As a travel book put it, “Smile! You’re supporting public transit.”

      If we really want to stop drivers from externalizing the costs of their driving, this is what we would do. It would be extremely difficult politically, though.

      1. New York City tolls all bridges and tunnels leading to and from Manhattan to pay for transit. It can be done, folks. Think of this like cigarette taxes to fund health care. We tax something that we don’t want (single occupancy vehicles) and use the money to promote something we want (transit). This is an issue of values–what we want to promote and what we want to discourage. And before someone mentions carpools, remember that the toll would then be split among passengers, so tolling also encourages carpooling.

      2. Let’s toll the new South Park Bridge, and have outer HOV lanes. Anybody got any brighter ideas to pay for the new bridge?

      3. Actually, NY only tolls the bridges across the Hudson and a few of the others. East River bridge tolls were shot down by the state legislature recently, even though they’re an excellent idea (there are what, *NINE* rail tunnels across the East River — who needs to drive their car?).

      4. Some of the East River bridges and the tunnels are tolled. Off the top of my head the Triburogh, the Queens midtown tunnel, and the Brooklyn Battery tunnel.

      5. It’s pretty amazing that NYC can get by with just four lanes in the Holland Tunnel, or is it even two lanes? My friend in Jersey City drives in sometimes, generally on the weekend, and yet the tunnel is less packed than 520 or I-5. Of course he’d never drive in during the week, he takes the PATH instead. But sometimes if he stays till 8pm he’ll take a (company-paid) taxi home, and the tunnel is pretty free-flowing.

      6. I believe tolls on both the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate pay for the ferries crossing the bay. Golden Gate transit’s operating subsidy also comes from tolls on the Golden Gate bridge.

    4. Gas tax funds can’t be used for transit in this State due to Constitutional Amendment 18. Therefore any portion of the 520 bridge that we would like to use exclusively for transit in the future should be constructed from non-gas tax dollars. In this case, that means toll revenue.

    5. I will nominate Matt’s “funding is tight” line for understatement of the year. Right now the state only has 2.5 billion of the 4.65 it needs to build the project.

    6. If the state is hell bent on removing the flyer stops and any equivalent functionality (two way HOV on/off ramps) they can pay for the replacement transit service with tolls.

      Besides part of the current trans-lake agreement is that the state will pay for a certain number of ST service hours across 520.

  4. @Matt-
    If funding “is already tight” perhaps the whole project ought to be re-considered (think Big Dig!).

    1. Funding may be tight, but that doesn’t mean you scrap the project. It just means the available funding needs to be used efficiently and effectively. In other words, WSDOT shouldn’t further subsidize Metro or ST if it impacts their ability to even construct the bridge!

      1. A subsidy to Metro and ST is already part of the trans-lake agreement and part of the construction mitigation. Frankly I think a very large pound of flesh for transit should be a requirement of allowing the rebuilding of 520 at all.

        For the removal of the flyer stops WSDOT should have to pay for double the current transit service hours crossing 520. If rail is precluded from being built on the bridge WSDOT should be forced to double that again.

        WSDOT really has no way of constructing the bridge as it stands. Without tolls on I-90 it is doubtful enough money can be raised on 520 alone to pay for the funding shortfall.

  5. Why keep arguing?

    How about some experimentation.

    Experiment #1.

    Duration: 1 month.

    Close 520 Bridge, as it stands, to all passenger car traffic. Make it bus only.

    See what happens.

    Experiment #2:

    Duration: 1 month.

    Close the Viaduct. Route all traffic onto Alaskan Way.

    See what happens.

    1. Seriously, they should do this. The lessons gained would be well worth any potential negative impacts. I suspect we would learn that people adjust quickly to changes, and the world would not end.

    2. Recall when they closed half of NB I-5 in South Seattle during the rehabilitation projects: almost everyone went on Sounder! (a little exaggerated, but everyone remembers)

    3. With all the earthquakes recently I started wondering, if a large quake does take out the Viaduct and the Evergreen Bridge, we should ask the legislature to not rush to build an emergency replacement, but to leave it for a few months so we can see what the “no-build” alternative would actually do.

      The worst traffic-quake situation I can think of is the intersection of I-5 and 405 at Southcenter. It would be impossible for cars to get around that without overwhelming the whole south county.

  6. RE:

    Put mandatory triggers in the law to raise HOV thresholds when speeds fall below 45 mph more than 5% of the time; come up with general-purpose lane performance standards and institute dynamic tolling to achieve them.

    With the HOV lane on the right side of 520 now, do you know what the one thing that lowers average speed in the HOV lane the most?


    I sincerely hope that during all of this, they can move the HOV lanes to the left.

    1. WSDOT will move HOV lanes to the left, along the entire SR 520 corridor, from I-5 to SR 202 & Avondale Road

      1. What about crossing the cut? I’ve seen HOV lanes get put on bridges (and on freeways even) on the side least useful to bus routes. If buses are forced to go through general traffic to get to the station, then at least put the northbound HOV lanes on the east (station) side of Montlake going north. There is no reason to make northbound buses turn across traffic to get into the station (or rather, not be able to take advantage of the HOV lane).

        I fear that the Montlake connection will be so slow for buses that we are going to get stuck with sending bus routes across 520 to downtown, meaning that every northeastside destination will have two routes across 520 (one to UW, one to downtown Seattle), significantly increasing Metro operating costs and significantly reducing headway for northeast cross-lake routes.

        I’d encourage the council to study bus travel time for the various options to get between 520 and the station, and make sure we don’t settle for an option that ends up being waaay slower than the others.

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