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The Fight Over The 520 Project

Derek Wang

Washington state is getting ready to replace the 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington. It'll be one of the largest highway projects in recent history. Next month, the state will formally announce details of the most controversial part of the project, the bridge's western connection to Seattle. Meanwhile there are ongoing negotiations on refining the design. And Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn's strategy for those refinements, relies on a possible citizens' lawsuit.


This is music from an online video from the Washington state Department of Transportation 520 project. It shows free–flowing highway lanes, clear skies, and electronic readerboards. It's a sunny vision for the current day reality.

The main issue raised by people opposed to the project is that it won't necessarily make it easier to get around.

Conley: "Under the current plans the Seattle side would be so congested that even though you might get across the highway quicker, you will be stuck in traffic on Seattle before you can get to your destination."

That Fran Conley, she heads a group of neighborhoods opposed to the project.

The plan for the new bridge is similar to the current one. There will be two lanes in each direction. What's new is that there will also be two new car–pool lanes.

Conley: "Many people think if there are more lanes then they can get to where they want to go faster. And unfortunately that's simply not true in this case."

Conley says once cars leave the bridge they'll run into a bottleneck where 520 hooks up with I–5 in Seattle. The state Department of Transportation concedes that their current plan won't fully fix that choke point.

Here's Julie Meredith, the project's director.

Meredith: "It isn't addressing all of the infrastructure improvements that are necessary on I–5."

Meredith says they studied ways to improve that connection but it wasn't worth the cost.

Meredith: "We considered investing over $1 billion in that interchange before. And you end up chasing your improvement projects all the way down the I–5 corridor."

In other words they're not going to pay those billions of dollars.

Instead, the state came up with an answer that would help move more people, just not as many cars. They'll connect the car–pool lanes with the I–5 express lanes. That would make it easier for commutes into Seattle in the morning, and out of Seattle in the afternoon. But it won't help the commute in the opposite direction. And that's one of the reasons why many nearby residents remain opposed to the project.

Jonathan Dubman lives in Montlake. I caught up with him recently.

Dubman: "We are sitting in what we call the War Room."

The War Room is an office that's been converted out of a garage in the backyard of one of Dubman's neighbors. It has several models of different ideas for 520 that the two men drew up.

Dubman: "I'm unrolling some big printouts that are maybe 3 by 5 feet or something like that of some options that we developed and some option that we oppose for 520."

Dubman and the neighborhood group insist that they're not opposed to the project at all costs. They say the best answer is to put light rail on the bridge because that will serve the most amount of people and limit the size of the new bridge. They've hired a lawyer who specializes in land use and they're raising money for a possible lawsuit.

The state and Governor Gregoire have said putting light rail on the bridge would require more studies and more delays. And that's where Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn comes in. He's been pushing for light rail on the new bridge from the start.

McGinn: "Our approach is that if we can come up with a bridge that includes light rail and meets with public support, neighbor support, we can get a bridge design faster than the proposals being pushed forth by those that just want a bigger bridge."

McGinn is careful to say that it's not his job to support any possible citizens lawsuit. But it would clearly help his goal of getting light rail on the bridge.

McGinn: "If we come forward with a good design that wins public support then we think that when the Legislature goes back into session next year and starts looking to fund the bridge or if there are delays caused by litigation, maybe we can get the Governor and others to look at an alternative design than the one they've been pushing."

The state will choose a preferred design next month, which could be followed by a lawsuit and more delays. And that would fit the Mayor's plan.

I'm Derek Wang, KUOW News.

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