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SR 520 Project Moves into Final Decision Making

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On Thursday, June 9, Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) published the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the SR 520 Bridge Replacement and HOV Program.  This begins the last stage in a decision making progress that started in 1997.  The next step will be a federal Record of Decision (ROD) and then formal approval of the project by the federal and state Transportation Departments.

The City Council has worked closely with WSDOT through the 14 years that this project has been in development.  While the City is not a formal partner in this project, WSDOT has been very responsive to City and community concerns, and the continued involvement of community members has contributed greatly to the quality of the final design.  There is no perfect design for any transportation project – there are always tradeoffs and changes that will impact the community.  Our task as Councilmembers is to ensure that this regional project serves the 50,000 Seattle residents and businesses that use SR 520 every day while protecting the interests of the Seattle communities and ecosystems adjacent to the corridor and contributing to the health and success of our region and its transportation system. While I personally advocated for a different alternative for the Montlake interchange, I am satisfied that WSDOT has made a responsible and reasonable choice that appropriately meets those interests. 

The Final EIS confirms that the preferred alternative, a six lane corridor with a new transit/HOV lane in each direction and a new bicycle/pedestrian path, will improve transit connections and travel times, accommodate future light rail, reconnect neighborhoods using landscaped lids, reduce noise, and improve parks and wetlands habitat.  By implementing separated transit/HOV lanes and tolling the facility, the project design reduces annual vehicle miles traveled on SR 520 by 5 to 10% and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by almost 10% over the no-build alternative.

The final design incorporates almost all of the design elements requested by the City Council in our review of the project proposal, including:

  • Reducing the width of the Portage Bay Bridge, considering a boulevard design, and eliminating the proposed auxiliary lane and replacing it with a managed shoulder.
  • In the Montlake area, locating transit/HOV ramps at 24th Ave E, including a full lid over SR 520 between Montlake Boulevard and the Arboretum, providing dedicated transit/HOV lanes on Montlake Boulevard and priority signals for transit, enhancing the Montlake Boulevard streetscape, and including a set of triggers that will determine whether a second bascule bridge is necessary.
  • Splitting the bridge corridor, narrowing shoulders, and adding wetlands and park improvements in Arboretum, along with removing the ‘ramps to nowhere’ and the current Arboretum ramps, implementing traffic calming in the Arboretum, and including coordinated environmental restoration work.
  • Reducing the height of the cross-lake bridge deck to 20 feet and ensuring that the bridge is constructed to accommodate high capacity transit.

The preferred alternative provides a new four acre park and eight acres of open space on the lids, funds Arboretum improvements, and restores all park properties affected by the construction.  The Corps of Engineers has designated this alternative as the “Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative”, its highest standard for wetland protection; full compensatory mitigation for all wetlands impacted will be required.  The Preferred Alternative reduces traffic noise below current levels through design changes, without requiring noise walls in the Seattle side.  The new design will reduce travel time by up to 25 minutes between I-5 and Redmond and up to 12 minutes on local streets in the Montlake area.

A letter from some neighborhood organizations (“Coalition for a Sustainable 520”) has raised four criticisms of the project.

  • They allege that the project will take a lane away from I-5 and cause traffic problems.  This statement causes confusion. The SR520 project design affects the 1-5 express lanes only, not the mainline.  To improve transit/HOV times, there will be a direct connection from SR520 to the existing 1-5 express lanes.  This will require a slight change in today’s I-5 express lane configuration.  I-5 mainline travel times will improve.
  • They criticize starting the project without full funding.  There is no question that we all need to work together to secure full funding for the project.  However, using the current funding to replace the floating bridge portion of 520 addresses the most critical safety problem, and this plus the eastside portion will greatly improve mobility, especially for transit, by providing five miles of dedicated transit lanes.
  • They suggest that it will be ten years or more before the vulnerable Seattle structures are replaced.  The Seattle approaches are the next highest safety priority.  Construction could begin as early as 2013 if funding is secured.  The West side project is complex and includes numerous neighborhood mitigations.  Simply shoring up the West side approaches without the neighborhood and transportation improvements would seriously shortchange Seattle residents, bridge users, and the environment.
  • They claim that there are Seattle traffic impacts that are not understood.  The FEIS clearly documents that Seattle traffic will be significantly improved as a result of this project.

The new SR 520 will accomplish a number of things including:

  • Improving safety.  The new structures will be designed to modern standards that better resist windstorms and earthquakes.
  • Improving cross-lake, local and regional travel.  Travel times will improve in the SR 520 project area, compared to the No Build and it adds new commuting options for bicyclists, pedestrians, and bus riders.
  • Incorporating neighborhood recommendations.   Adds lids, improves transit stops and transit stop locations, reduces noise, and minimizes potential road closures during construction.
  • Protecting and enhancing the environment.  Achieves the greatest environmental benefits compared to other alternatives.

The Council is committed to continued work with WSDOT and citizens on project commitments and public engagement.  In addition to mitigation that will be described in the final EIS, WSDOT will implement funding for the Montlake Triangle Project, traffic and environmental mitigation improvements in the Arboretum, and developing a Community Construction Management Plan and a Seattle Community Design Process.  The Council is currently negotiating an agreement with WSDOT to implement neighborhood traffic management planning and implementation, to establish triggers for the decision on whether to construct the second Montlake Bridge, and to establish commitments for engagement in the final design of the Seattle side.  We expect this agreement to be completed in the near future.

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