This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

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Now that I can actually spend some time blogging, let me make a few comments on the 520 bridge and light rail, a debate which seems to have come back into the fore, thanks to a last-minute protest from Mayor McGinn and several other Seattle-area politicians earlier this year.

[The current design is for 4 general purpose lanes plus 2 HOV/Transit lanes (HOV 3+). McGinn wants 4 GP lanes plus 2 transit-only lanes (bus now, light rail later). ]

If you haven’t been following the details, it’s important to note that the Governor decided back in 2008 to opt for a light-rail-free design. The environmental impact studies all proceeded from that assumption. Putting light rail back into the plans would require a new EIS and a delay to the project. How long? McGinn says 6 months. The State AG and the feds say 2 years. The project cost would certainly increase by several hundred billion dollars as well.

Serial Catowner has some serious qualms about the current design. I’m sympathetic. $4.5 billion is a lot of money to spend on oil-dependent infrastructure in the year 2010, when we know we have to seriously reduce our carbon output in the next 20 years.

A lot can happen between now and. say, 2040, when we might realistically see light rail on 520. Oil could be $20/gallon, all cars could run on electricity, and Microsoft could decamp for Bangalore, leaving its office complex in Redmond looking like the old GM and Ford plants in 2010 Detroit. All of these things will affect the 520 bridge.

It’s a lot to try to plan for.

So we’ve come, in 2010, after over a decade of discussion, to this messy compromise known as “Option A+.” It’s not perfect. In some ways, it’s kind of ridiculous. But it’s the result of a lot of messy compromises and stakeholder meetings that many people who are not me spent time attending and working with. Not having attended a single outreach meeting on the project, I don’t feel right complaining too much about the chosen outcome. Balancing the demands of the Arboretum, the UW, Microsoft the surrounding neighborhoods, and other interest groups can’t have been easy.

It is easy, however, for me to sit in front of my computer here at night, shake my fist, and demand my preferred design. But those groups I mentioned above have political clout, specifically because they’ve organized, and the project is a result of that organization.

This leads me to my next point: if there’s a better design, what’s the strategy for making it a reality? If you’re asking to delay the project by up to 2 years and add hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost, you have a responsibility, I would think, not just to make an engineering argument, but also to make a political argument. How will you get your design implemented? Mayor McGinn is not exactly a political powerhouse right now. Quite the opposite, actually. And Frank Chopp and Ed Murray are voicing opposition because they know it plays well with their constituents, but they’re unlikely to try and seriously derail the project.

Finally, even if there is a political strategy, it comes with an opportunity cost. More effort and money trying to get potential light rail on 520 could reduce the amount of actual transit that gets built elsewhere. Not only that, there’s a case to be made, not by me, but by Sound Transit and many others, that buses are better on 520 from a transit perspective, because they can serve multiple destinations. So even if you somehow manage to delay the project long enough to get pontoons and a bridge deck big enough to maybe someday carry trains that no agency has plans to build, it’s not clear that it’s a better solution even from a pure transit perspective.

One Reply to “520 and Light Rail”

  1. These projects always reach the last mile after a “process” that only someone with a significant stake in the outcome can afford to participate in. There’s good and bad in that, but it hardly precludes 11th hour concerns- if anything, it should remind us of their importance.

    Equally certain is that plan proponents will point to enormous expense and the danger to the public of delay. I’m not buying it. Maybe a few hundred thousand for more EIS, but don’t try to tell me about millions. The data has been collected, the modeling has been built and used, change the inputs to reflect changes in configuration and usage, and run the model projections.

    How to implement a better plan? Well, the last time they built this bridge, the people passed an initiative killing the RH Thompson Freeway. This was very thrilling but Tim Eyman and the State of California make it obvious that government by initiative should be the last choice, not the first. In this case, however, the final choice hasn’t even been made. All you need to do to implement a better plan is to go back to the original agreement, that the bridge be built to accommodate future rail, and use the existing process without the backroom dealing by Gregoire and “key leaders” that leads to a gubernatorial veto of the original agreement.

    Nor am I impressed by the idea that the money might be better spent improving transit elsewhere. Nobody at the state is saying, hey, we saved a bunch of money here, where would you like to use it for transit? I intend to deal with that “no agency has plans to build” meme in an upcoming post- don’t touch that radio dial!

    I understand your hesitation here, I just don’t share it.

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