520 Bridge, Montlake Bridge, Arboretum

On Monday, February 4, the City Council Committee on the SR 520 Project (a special Committee that includes all nine Councilmembers) unanimously approved a Resolution committing the City to work with WSDOT to improve walking and biking connections on the west side of Lake Washington as the SR 520 project proceeds, including a shared use trail on the Portage Bay Bridge. I expect the Council to formally approve the Committee report on Monday, February 11.

 The resolution calls for improving the functionality, safety, and attractiveness of bicycle and pedestrian facilities in the Montlake community, especially on the lid, and developing designs for building the shared use trail on the new Portage Bay Bridge. As Chair of the Council’s Special Committee on the SR 520 Project, I introduced this resolution as the next step in making sure that the rebuild of SR 520 creates a system that effectively serves all modes of travel, enhancing the ability of Seattle residents to travel both across the Montlake interchange and on the SR 520 mainline.

It is clear that it would make sense to have a bicycle and pedestrian path on the Portage Bay Bridge, and that the current design for the area around the Montlake Interchange needs more development in order to ensure safe and convenient bicycle and pedestrian connections. However, SR 520 is a State of Washington project, and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has the ultimate authority to make these decisions. Fortunately, the City has developed a strong working relationship with WSDOT as a result of our work with them to make the project successful, and WSDOT has committed to coordinating with the City on the design of the Seattle side. In 2011 we negotiated an agreement signed by WSDOT and the City that outlined a series of decisions that will need to be made on the Seattle side, and committed the two parties to a cooperative course in addressing them.

The Council has already called for a reexamination of the proposed Second Montlake Bridge, noting that a study that the City commissioned has determined that it offers little or no benefit for vehicles and transit, and that spending $100 million on this bridge is not the best way to meet the clear need for better pedestrian and bicycle connections across the Montlake Cut. The Council has allocated funds to conduct regular pedestrian and bicycle counts on the current Montlake Bridge to get a better picture of the need, to study several alternatives that would better serve pedestrians and bicycles, and to review the entire transit corridor around the Montlake Interchange to develop ways that would improve the movement of buses through the area. The review of the Montlake lid and connecting pathways by WSDOT and the City will complement that City work in facilitating pedestrian and bicycle movement.

The challenge for WSDOT and the City on developing a bicycle and pedestrian path across the Portage Bay corridor will be to reconcile efforts supported by numerous neighborhood organizations to reduce the width of the Portage Bay Bridge with our interest in adding a bicycle/pedestrian path. We are recommending that the designers look at the widest array of possible options in order to find the best design that meets both of those goals.

I am also recommending, following the advice of the Seattle Design Commission, that the City designate a point person to coordinate the City’s involvement with WSDOT on the SR 520 project. As these decisions move forward, it is important that we integrate issues like parks, transportation, and urban design.

We expect to have many west side design issues resolved by the end of 2013. At the same time, WSDOT will continue the work on SR 520 on the east side of Lake Washington, which is well underway, and the construction on the bridge approaches and pontoons that will actually comprise the floating bridge portion of the project.

WSDOT has also obtained a federal loan that will allow it to construct one of the two parts of the 520 corridor between the end of the floating bridge and the Montlake interchange. This is the first of several stages that are required to fully redo the Seattle side of SR 520. We want to keep this work going at a steady pace, as the worst case scenario for Seattle would be for the work to stall after the east side and floating bridge portions are constructed. That could leave the west side with unsolved transportation issues, and could potentially jeopardize important project components on the Seattle side, as costs increase over time and WSDOT searches for resources.

The fact is that WSDOT does not currently have the money to complete SR 520 on the Seattle side. If we want to ensure that we address the west side transportation issues, have comprehensive bicycle, pedestrian, and transit connections, and keep the elements that will make SR 520 work for our neighborhoods and the Arboretum, we must secure more funding. Tolling the I-90 Bridge has been identified by the State as a key element in their funding plan. This will, however, require authorization by the State Legislature, and that is a key action that the City will work on in this legislative session.