An intergovernmental workgroup has completed its work and released its report about the Montlake Bridge and the 520 project’s impact on flows across it, written by Nelson/Nygaard. The results hit the street today and will be considered by the Council on Monday. Here’s the one page summary (.doc). The full report is here.

WSDOT included a second bascule bridge in its preferred alternative, which would add two HOV lanes to the current four general purpose lanes and widen each. The city pushed back, reflecting neighborhood opposition to a wider roadway. So a new workgroup developed “triggers” for new bascule bridge construction.

The study looked at bike/ped, transit, and “mainline” impacts. By “mainline”, they mean traffic flow on the 520 bridge. It’s bad news for anyone who wanted to see a new bridge. The conclusions were:

  • Bike/Ped: Current bike and pedestrian capacity is inadequate, probably already exceeding reasonable triggers, and the City should explore options for improving it without building a second bridge.*
  • Transit in the corridor is at or approaching the threshold that defines failed service delivery due to unreliability and low speed, and is likely to be well over the line soon. If service quality degrades from 2011 levels, the state should consider building the bridge. However, there is “no evidence” that the bridge “plays any substantial role” in the delays, and other corridor improvements are more cost-effective than a new bridge.
  • Mainline traffic is only affected by the bridge when it opens. A second bridge might clear this disruption faster, but that’s a marginal improvement.

I have no trouble believing that an equivalent value of 23rd Ave corridor improvements in the Transit Master Plan would yield better performance gains for the 43 and 48 than a second bridge. The bascule bridge has little impact because in any case buses have to merge with general purpose traffic to get into the left turn lane to Pacific. So extending the HOV lane across the bridge just moves the merge point north a few feet — a minor improvement at best.

That’s unfortunate because of how much depends on bus efficiency here. With a new Link station and no Montlake Flyer Stop, the entire transit system would be more efficient with a seamless flow from the interchange to the Link Station. Metro and Sound Transit could get mostly out of the business of sending buses downtown via 520. The transfer to Link is already damaged by a long walk from the bus stop that crosses at least one street at grade. More than ever, every minute counts. Improvements at random spots on 23rd might be great for the 48, but will do nothing to help the 542 or 271.

However, there are two other potential problems with the conclusion that HOV lanes on the bridge aren’t that important.

First, in a world where common sense ruled, the State would clearly have the same obligation to pay for mitigation whether it took the form of a new road bridge or transit priority treatments. However, after a few trips to the mega-project rodeo, we know how this goes. The Montlake bridge is a car bridge on a state route, so it’s in WSDOT’s wheelhouse. Transit priority treatments on 23rd? One can picture the relief in Olympia: “That’s a city responsibility.” Rather than trading the new bridge for something more cost-effective, Seattle might trade it for nothing. It will take vigilance by Seattle leaders to prevent this from happening.

Second, the second bridge will be far from shovel ready. If the trigger conditions are met and policymakers desire a more general reform of this corridor, that is merely the beginning of a process to study the utility of another bridge. After that grinding experience, someone will have to come out with money to build it. Meanwhile, transit riders will spend years suffering an inadequately engineered route.**

* Perhaps by retrofitting the current bridge or building a much cheaper bike/ped bridge.

** Metro GM Kevin Desmond’s comments, appended to the end of the report, are notable for being the only ones that seem to really be worried about the bus.

52 Replies to “Seattle Releases Montlake Bridge Report”

  1. So… it appears a second bridge would be ineffective enough that the only reason to ask it would be just to set a tone so that when it’s rejected we can say, “At least let’s do something for transit, bikes, and pedestrians”?

    I cross the Montlake Bridge on bike all the time and I guess I don’t see a pure capacity issue there as much as a lack of design for bikes. The Fremont and Ballard Bridges have much worse capacity issues (the Fremont Bridge has around the same capacity as the Montlake Bridge, somewhat better design as a bike route, and enough bike and pedestrian traffic that it gets bogged down often; the Ballard Bridge has so little capacity that it’s overwhelmed even by the small amount of pedestrian and bike traffic it gets).

    A separate bike bridge might really be the best answer, but don’t send pedestrians there. Pedestrian conditions would be just fine on the current bridge if there weren’t a bunch of bikes on the sidewalk, and the current bridge’s sidewalk will be the most direct route for most pedestrians.

    1. (In case it’s not clear, when I say, “I don’t see a pure capacity issue there,” I’m speaking of pedestrians and bikes on the sidewalk. Obviously traffic backups regularly affect transit reliability.)

    2. Why can’t the spoiled, freeloading bicyclists walk their bikes across the bridge, anyway? If they want any special facilities, let them start paying into the system in the same manner that motorists do. Until then, the majority of Seattle voters will slap you down.

      1. Bicyclists do pay into the system in the same manner that motorists do. Both pay local property taxes, which fund the majority of the road network.

      2. (Or, alternatively, both don’t pay local property taxes, if they don’t live in the area. Bicyclists are more likely to live in the area.)

  2. Well, the council has something to hang it’s hat on. No 2nd Bridge. It’s good to know the whole corridor is fucked up, so building another bridge over the cut does zip for transit. Good luck truncating any E-side routes to Link, seeing as there’s little to be done.

  3. Here’s a solution: toll the bridge (or alternatively add HOT lanes). It’s worked well with SR 520 why couldn’t it work here? Indeed, it really is the only workable solution for transit that doesn’t involve building another bridge. It would make truncating eastside routes at U-Link, namely the 255 and 545, feasible, make core routes like the 48, 271 and 43 far more reliable and generate revenue. Moreover, unlike most other city streets tolling the bridge is possible because the tolld can’t be readily dodged. And in terms of political feasibility, wouldn’t the wealthier communities that frequent that corridor (laurelhurst, eastside communities etc. warm up to the idea of paying a little money for no more Montlake mess?

    1. That’s pretty much the answer but you don’t have to toll the Montlake Bridge you just toll the exit ramps from 520. It’s not local traffic that’s responsible for the congestion it’s freeway access. The only exit from 520 should be from the HOV 3+ lanes and if there’s enough capacity then you make it a HOT lane. I think eastsiders would gladly pay $7 a carload to be able to drive straight into the lot for Husky football.

    2. I generally have no issue with tolling freeways anywhere and a big issue with tolling access to basic local roads. I think that sort of basic mobility is a basic service provided by the city.

      You can’t assume that everyone traveling around this area is rich. We’re talking about basic access to UW, the medical center, jobs and housing in the U District and U Village that aren’t monolithically rich.

      1. Exactly why you put the toll on the 520 off ramp. Local traffic isn’t the problem; it’s freeway access that creates the overload. I’ve long held that 520 should not connect to I-5 southbound. That’s not going to happen; makes too much sense. But you could toll the interchange and tolls on the Mercer on/off ramps would eliminate the problem.

      2. I concede that tolling the off ramp might work too, but I disagree with Al Diamond’s notion that tolling local roads violates the notion of basic mobility being a citizen right. First of all the only way one even has a right to pay the toll is if they are a car owner, which excludes a large swath of the population. Second, don’t those who can’t drive across the bridge have a right to reliable transit service through the area?

        You state: “We’re talking about basic access to UW, the medical center, jobs and housing in the U District and U Village that aren’t monolithically rich.” Yeah and a truck load of people accessing those locations take public transit, or could readily switch to public transit if incentivized to do so. This will only become more true once U-Link is opened. But right now these people LACK basic access because transit is unreliable through the corridor. So no tolling doesn’t hurt poor people, students etc., it undoubtedly helps them.

        Finally you state: “You can’t assume that everyone traveling around this area is rich.” I never made that assumption and don’t see how you came to that conclusion based on my statement. In fact if I did make that assumption it would be almost impossible to toll the birdge because the toll would have to be exceptionally high to dissuade any use. Thus, I didn’t make such an assumption but rather rightly noted that adding a toll to the bridge would require a political coalition and if those east of montlake neighborhoods strongly opposed the change it would likely be a non-starter.

      3. Bridges have been tolled for car traffic since time immemorial. ‘Cause car bridges are expensive.

        Obviously, make it free to walk across the bridge; that provides the “basic mobility”.

  4. Until bicycles have licensing requirements and pay a dedicated vehicle use tax equal to that paid by motorcyclists, there should be absolutely no spending whatsoever on any infrastructure for them. You want to play? Then pay up. Until then, forget it.

    1. We’ve been through this several times – a licensing fee for bicyclists that people would actually be willing to pay would merely serve to pay the administrative costs of enforcing and collecting such a fee. It would not raise squat towards infrastructure.

      And, besides, bicyclists pay sales taxes and property taxes like everyone else. And most of them drive and, therefore also pay vehicle registration fees and gasoline taxes.

      1. Bicyclists pay no separate taxes on their bicycles. The bicycle lobby does nothing but lie about the issue. And you and your bicycle-centric, one-term mayor are lying about the costs of collecting registration fees.

      2. Seattle city streets aren’t funded through vehicle licensing either. Tab fees go mostly to state and county authorities – The bulk of SDOT’s financing comes from the city General Fund, which is fed by sales and property tax. Everyone pays those taxes, even if they don’t register a car.

        Last count was about 2% of SDOT’s budget was on bike improvements. Meanwhile about 3% of Seattle trips were made by bicycle. Seems a bit unbalanced.

      3. The bulk of SDOT’s financing comes from the city General Fund, which is fed by sales and property tax. Everyone pays those taxes, even if they don’t register a car.

        Doesn’t matter to me. What does matter is that I pay to register my car, and my motorcycle, but the freeloaders on bicycles don’t pay a damn thing. Then they turn around and make demands, and “Mayor McSchwinn” backs them up. There’s a reason the guy is so unpopular, and that’s a biggie. It’s time bicyclists grow up and start paying up.

      4. Bicycles and bicycle equipment are subject to sales tax just like everything else you can buy. Every time someone purchases a bicycle, they are directly contributing money into the city’s general fund.

      5. Bicycles and bicycle equipment are subject to sales tax just like everything else you can buy. Every time someone purchases a bicycle, they are directly contributing money into the city’s general fund.

        Until you pay separate vehicle taxes, you should get no separate fecilities whatsoever. You want a bike lane, or a bike path? Pay separate fees, and accept rider licensing. Until then: Nada.

      6. Until Not Fan pays for the cost of his postings here, I don’t consider him a pure laissez faire capitalist.

      7. Not Fan, so you don’t actually care that the road system is funded on the backs of property owners.

        You just hate paying taxes for owning a pollution-belching, road-damaging vehicle which tends to kill pedestrians, so you would like to force bicyclists to pay taxes for owning bicycles too?

        I think that’s what you said. Bizarre.

        I own a car, and I’m happy to pay the extra fees associated with it, because I cause a lot more trouble with a car than bicyclists do with bikes.

      8. Not Fan: the roads were originally paved due to pressure from the bicyclists’ lobby, back in the 19th century. Cars don’t need paved roads. So you do have a valid complaint: why is so much money being spent on wide paved roads?

        You could then get rid of all those taxes on cars — after all, with dirt roads for cars, the maintenance of the road system wouldn’t need very much money.


      1. Only license people who use vehicles on the streets. We should also require that bicycles be walked on sidewalks. Sidewalks should be for the exclusive use of pedestrians.

      2. :)

        Frankly, however, I’d prefer that money be spent on completing the city’s sidewalk system and maintaining them. There are still major arterials in parts of the city that have no sidewalks. Every street should be a safe place to walk. We are a long way from that.

    2. A typical motorcycle plus rider weighs at least three times what a typical bicycle plus rider weighs.

      Vehicle fees should be based on an exponential calculation based on weight, because weight is what causes wear and damage to roads, and heavier vehicles cause exponentially more damage.

      I’m sure cyclists would be happy to pay the few cents their usage of the roads costs in wear.

      1. Bicycles, cars, and motorcycles cause the same amount of pavement damage, which is none. Vehicle weight is only a means to collect extra taxes. A Vespa owner pays $85 a year, and that weight is very close to that of a bicycle. However, if weight is that much of an issue, then we should include the rider, which would mean McGinn would pay more on his bike than I do on my scooter.

  5. One proposal I’ve never seen seriously considered is to build a second bridge, but with just one lane per direction (plus a sidewalk, of course), which would go straight to the Link station and not even bother connecting with the street. It would be used exclusively by buses to drop people off at the station and layover.

    This should be worth considering, as the service hours that could be saved by truncated eastside buses is huge. Today, (except when 520 is clogged up during rush hour), the 545 takes almost as long to get from the south end of downtown to the Olive Way entrance ramp at the north end of downtown as it does to get from the Olive Way entrance ramp all the way to Redmond.

    1. Consider after East Link opens. Why would there still be a 545?

      In general, most eastsiders who might consider a bus to UW Station to transfer and head downtown will be riding shorter routes connecting to an East Link Station instead.

      It’s really connecting between the station and local bus routes that is the long-term problem. Some of it will involve more riders using U District Station and having a shorter, flatter walk.

  6. If you want to know what effect opening Link will have you would look in the full report under Bikes/Peds???
    WTF. Nothing in the transit section on future conditions, but some revealing information from the ST reps at the table under bikes/peds.
    In 2016, when ULink opens it will generate 13,000 daily boardings from day one, increasing to 21,500 per weekday in 2030, which is fewer than the current literature of 25,000. The report goes on to say frequency will remain at the current levels of 7-8 minutes between trains.
    It seems that transit is kind of an ‘after thought’ in all this planning going on.

  7. So basically it’s the yachts, not the bridge. Perhaps a larger cost should be imposed for bridge openings…and a more restricted time space.

    Imagine each boat with a Good2Go card, being charged $50,000 every time it blasts its klaxon.

    1. I had a discussion with one of the workers at the Locks a few weeks ago. He reasoned that boats aren’t charged for using the locks because they already pay enough in gas tax to pay for their passages. “Your car pays the tax on 15 gallons when it fills up. That boat pays the tax on 150 gallons when it fills up.” There you have it.

      1. If a boat fills up at a fuel dock, then it doesn’t pay state gas taxes. They are exempt. That doesn’t make fuel at fuel docks cheap since they provide specialized facilities with little competition – but the gas is exempt from state gas taxes, so no they are not paying for road infrastructure or bridge openings

      2. Right but my reason for a charging a very large fee is due to the impact on society. If you cause delays and traffic to hundreds of people by using this resource then society has a case for imposing a cost back to the individual. So it is like each person is suing the boat owner and getting $100 in settlement for the hardship.

        This is the same logic as charging tolls on bridges. It is not just the material cost, but your trying to influence behavior (take transit).

      3. Sorry folks. The cost of bridge openings is on the drivers. That’s the bargain made with the Coast Guard for being allowed to put the bridge there in the first place. Contrary to most drivers opinion they don’t own all they can see from their windshield.

      4. Wait. Wasn’t Lake Washington non-navigable (except for boats starting in Lake Washington) once upon a time?

    2. “So basically it’s the yachts, not the bridge. Perhaps a larger cost should be imposed for bridge openings…and a more restricted time space.”

      Unfortunately, that is a federal matter. It probably requires an act of Congress, though it might only require approval from the Coast Guard or the Army Corps of Engineers or something.

      The laws, since the 18th century, have given ship traffic very strong priority. This means that *Amtrak* in the *Northeast Corridor* — and even the *New York City Subway* — have to stop and open bridges pretty much on the schedule of the ship operators.

      I don’t think this is a wise priority, but it’s been the law for over 100 years and it would be quite hard to change.

  8. The report is pretty depressing in that it provides for no solutions which will improve transit flow in Montlake. The design of the Montlake interchange does not allow for traffic to flow smoothly, and while WS-DOT’s pretty pictures show lots of trees, they are mainly there to cover asphalt and make the roads seems narrower than they really will be.

    There aren’t viable, conflict-free transit lanes through the area, and the Montlake Flyer station is gone, and transfers to southbound service are terrible. Once I-90 is tolled 520 traffic levels will go back up. Plus a lot of the 520 congestion is from people north of the Montlake Cut (Laurelhurst, Windermere, Wedgwood) using Montlake to access 520 and avoid I-5 congestion.

    The overall 520 project is a $4 billion project and will do little (or nothing) to improve transit in this area. And it will cut the area off from most Eastside bus service since it eliminates the Flyer stop – and the design means that routes cannot truncate at Husky Stadium.

    1. the Montlake Flyer station is gone,

      It’s back! The latest design iteration not only provides for a flyer stop but puts it up on the lid; a significant improvement. What WSDOT representatives have told me at an open house is that Metro plays to truncate peak period routes at UW but off peak buses will exit onto the lid and then re-enter 520 and continue to DT. This makes a lot of sense because peak is when DT transit is stretched to capacity and congestion results in a longer trip time than a transfer to Link.

      1. That was possible WB with a previous design, but as I recall, there were difficulties with doing it EB. Has that been addressed?

      2. It’s great that a little congestion in the tunnel and on 2nd/4th Ave can be relieved four years from now. In the meantime, will Metro consider truncating some peak routes at Rainier Beach Station to relieve downtown congestion a little bit sooner?

      3. That’s not what I heard. I heard that off-peak buses would serve the stop of the lid en-route to downtown and peak-period buses would bypass the stop and go straight into downtown. Then, such buses will sit in traffic and endure a 30-minute crawl from the Stewart St. exit ramp to the international district.

        If we kick buses out of the tunnel, you would absolutely be able to get to the international district much faster by getting off the bus at the Montlake lid, walking to the Link station, and hopping on a train the rest of the way.

  9. The bascule bridge has little impact because in any case buses have to merge with general purpose traffic to get into the left turn lane to Pacific.

    This makes zero sense to me. If we had HOV lanes on Montlake, why wouldn’t they have signal priority at the Pacific interchange?

    1. I’ve been wondering that about HOV lanes in general. At Pacific, it is because Montlake is a state highway, and WSDOT doesn’t give a flying flip about moving more people instead of more vehicles. But then, SDOT hasn’t shown much willingness to give signal priority to transit or HOV lanes either.

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