Ed. Note: As always, guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of the STB editorial board.
The City of Seattle may reverse its longstanding position regarding the Montlake Bridge, a major transit corridor leading to the University of Washington Station. A resolution is before the Seattle City Council that reverses the traditionally skeptical posture of the city towards adding lanes, advocating not just bike and pedestrian upgrades (which have wide support), but also, new vehicular lanes across the Montlake Cut. These lanes would carry not just buses, but other “high-occupancy” vehicles as well such as carpools and rideshares. This is a huge departure from the city’s position as of 2015:
Consistent with Resolution 31411, the City continues to support the position that improvements made by a second Montlake bascule bridge are unlikely to yield the benefits that justify the cost and environmental impact of a bridge…Resolution 31611, section 2, adopted unanimously in 2015
STB covered this issue back in 2012.
A bridge big enough to carry three northbound lanes, to the east of the current bridge, which the state would build with this new direction from the city, would likely require on the order of $100 million of public funds, based on prior WSDOT estimates – state funds already lined up. Free money for public infrastructure – something for transit, bikes – what’s not to like?
From a distance, it might sound like a no-brainer to add more lanes across the ship canal in Montlake, at least for transit, if not for HOV. Montlake is a major bottleneck and will remain so under the best of circumstances at this point.
WSDOT and SDOT have spent many years modeling the complex vehicular and transit movements in this area. A second drawbridge, which would go up exactly as often for exactly as long as the current one does, and lead to intersections north and south of the bridge that are over capacity, does not cure this bottleneck. No new reason has emerged to suggest that adding vehicular lanes would improve transit speed or reliability.
Things are already set to improve when the new Montlake interchange is complete, without a new drawbridge. There are queue bypass lanes today on both sides of the drawbridge that will serve buses from SR 520. Eastside buses heading for UW Station already zoom across the lake, and will stop on the new lid in Montlake, separated from other traffic. From there, a Northbound queue jump in the Shelby/Hamlin area already exists, and northbound buses simply merge just before the Montlake Bridge. Southbound, the reverse works from Pacific St. You’ll typically spend more time waiting to cross the street than you will crossing the canal.
Route 48 (a future RapidRide line) does gets stuck heading northbound through Montlake, especially after the bridge goes up – but that is a problem the state admits a second drawbridge won’t fix. It’s also not clear where buses using a new HOV lane on a new bridge would end up on the north side as bus routes currently diverge at Pacific Street.
Construction impacts of a second drawbridge in this congested area would be significant, to say nothing of the aesthetic impacts on multiple historic landmarks, and environmental impacts on a salmon migration path that were seen as an impossible challenge when earlier plans proposed a high level bridge carrying buses from UW Station directly to SR 520.
As we struggle with the monumental challenge of climate change, one thing we can do is to stop making things worse by wasting the resources we do have on more 20th century solutions like adding lanes to fix traffic congestion where they don’t even work. What to do instead with about $100 million in the late 2020’s is a question that deserves a fresh look in light of current needs. Can station access and bus-Link connections be further improved? Would a pedestrian tunnel to the bus stops in front of the hospital save more people more time for less money than a new vehicular bridge? Should anything be done for Montlake Blvd. heading southbound from U Village where UW (a state institution flanking a road that is actually a state highway, SR 513) plans massive expansion in its latest Campus Master Plan?
The Montlake Bridge has been upgraded mechanically and is structurally sound. There is no public safety risk like there was on SR 520 and the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Bike/ped needs are easier and cheaper to address without having to contend with more vehicles and more vehicle lanes in the same confined area.
It would be tragic if the City of Seattle approved a dysfunctional major works project that despoils its own landscape under the auspices of “doing something for transit and bicycles,” that would instead serve as a permanent monument to the inattention of its civic leadership during times when we should have known better.