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Construction on lidded overpass on east side of 520 bridge, Jan. 2012. (WSDOT Photo)

Construction on lidded overpass on east side of 520 bridge, Jan. 2012. (WSDOT Photo)


Eastside Sees Progress On 520, Seattle Fears It's Losing Out

Amy Radil

Construction is underway on the taller, wider 520 floating bridge and highway and it's causing some anxiety in communities around Lake Washington. July 16 marks the seventh and final open house for Seattle residents to give feedback on the new 520 bridge design. But it's not known when the funding will be in place to complete the project.


The Washington state transportation department (WSDOT) has been building new approaches to the 520 bridge on the Eastside. This past weekend while the bridge was closed for construction, WSDOT offered some behind–the–scenes bus tours of its work. The tours gave residents a view of the new "lidded overpasses" being built. These so–called lids are important to communities around the highway because they soften its impact and help bicyclists and pedestrians cross over it safely.

John White is WSDOT's project director for the 520 replacement.

White: "These lids will actually have public space, green space, areas to take in views — say, at the Evergreen Point Road lid that's adjacent to Lake Washington, you'll be able to look west and you'll be able to see Seattle off in the distance, and the lake, and have quality public space."

But the progress on the Eastside has aroused some consternation in Seattle. Jonathan Dubman of the Coalition for a Sustainable 520 says he doesn't understand why the state has been spending money on Eastside highway approaches before replacing the parts over the water.

Dubman: "The state has chosen to work on the East side and spend hundreds of millions of dollars widening this highway on dry land where it's not a public safety risk. And they have chosen to defer the section across Portage Bay, the Portage Bay bridge heading up to I–5, which is a public safety risk."

WSDOT is working east to west as it replaces the highway. But the project is only funded as far as the replacement of the floating bridge itself. That leaves two more bridges, the one to Montlake and the Portage Bay bridge, unfunded.

The agency is seeking a federal loan to build part of the extension to Montlake. It's studying tolling I–90 for the rest of the money. But for now there's no money to complete the bridge or its connections to Seattle. Residents have been promised lids for those connections, but Dubman notes there's no money for that either.

Dubman: "There is no funding source on the horizon to pay for the full vision that the state has in this corridor. It seems quite likely that whatever the state builds next is going to be the last thing we see here for quite some time."

He complains that WSDOT is building a bigger bridge to solve gridlock that no longer exists; traffic has been flowing freely since tolls were imposed last December. Dubman's group has sued WSDOT in federal court. The judge's ruling is expected in the next few months.

The lawsuit seeks to force WSDOT to analyze whether the new highway is necessary in light of the new tolling.

WSDOT officials say they are forging ahead with the public process so that when the funding is available, they'll have designs ready.

That process was on display at a recent open house at the Montlake Community Center. People wrote their concerns on competing Post–it notes and stuck them to diagrams and maps. Often the Post–it comments were at odds with one other. One read "no bike lane," while the one next to it said "if no bike lane, we'll ride in the street."

Montlake resident Amanda Lee surveyed all the diagrams. She says the 520 bridge is already in her backyard.

Lee: "People driving on the bridge know what we have for breakfast."

She's worried about designs that would bring those drivers even closer to her window. Lee says she's tried to give feedback at these open houses, but sometimes she finds the options she's given are sort of constrained. It reminds her of when her husband didn't want to paint the garage.

Lee: "I finally said, okay honey, here are your three choices for painting the garage, which color should we pick?"

She says her husband couldn't vote for "none of the above," and neither can people in Seattle when it comes to the new highway.

Lee: "I kind of felt like sometimes that's what's happening here: 'Not only do you want this, but you chose this!'"

One decision yet to be made involves how far bicyclists will be able to ride on the bridge. Under the current design, a non–motorized path would allow pedestrians and bicyclists to go from the Eastside as far as Montlake. But Gordon Padelford of Central Seattle Greenways says he came to the open house to ask the state to extend the bike lane farther along the final segment, the Portage Bay bridge.

Padelford: "That's a pretty big priority because a lot of the other work we can do later, but if they don't build a facility on the bridge when it's built, you can't come back later and put that in most likely, so that has to be in the plans from the get–go."

WSDOT officials say in order for that bike lane to be considered, the city of Seattle would need to officially ask for it. So far the city hasn't taken an official position, but city staff with the Seattle transportation department say community support for the bike lane does seem to be building.

WSDOT engineering manager Kerrie Pihlstrom says including the path would create some design challenges.

Pihlstrom: "If we're asked to do something different, we'll evaluate that and see what that means to our environmental analysis and then make a decision on moving forward. I think the bike path on Portage Bay bridge will be an interesting conversation since it adds additional width to the structure in an area where we've been asked to reduce the width as much as possible."

But bike advocates say that lane could be created out of the existing bridge design, without making it wider. They say a planted median could become a path instead. Jonathan Dubman with the Coalition for a Sustainable 520 calls the issue a red herring since he says the state likely won't have the funds for any of these possibilities for years to come.

I'm Amy Radil, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW