Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Washington State gets lucky again

Over the last weekend, Western Washington and the Pacific Northwest got hit by a sinister wind storm that knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of local residents. The fierce winds also forced the closure of the world's longest floating bridge - the SR 520 span across Lake Washington.

SR 520 Bridge During February 2006 Storm

The bridge finally reopened on early Sunday morning:
Repairs are complete on the State Route 520 Evergreen Point Floating Bridge mechanical draw span system, and the bridge has is open to vehicular traffic. The bridge had been closed since 9 AM Saturday morning due to high winds and rough water on Lake Washington.

The bridge suffered minor damage to its mechanical draw span system and repairs were required before the bridge could open back up to traffic.

During yesterday’s wind storm, the 42 year old floating bridge endured steady winds of 50 miles per hour and gusts up to 75 miles per hour. Vulnerable to damage from heavy winds, the bridge was closed to traffic and the draw span opened to allow water to pass through the middle of the bridge.

Opening the draw span reduces the amount of potential damage to the bridge. Wind speeds varied between 40 and 50 miles per hour for most of the day. WSDOT bridge maintenance crews brought in specialized ultrasonic equipment to inspect the bridge as winds started to diminish and the inspections showed no major structural damage.
We dodged another bullet. Washington State got lucky again, but our luck isn't going to last. Sooner or later the SR 520 bridge will be out of commission. Redmond's lifeline to Seattle will be severed.

Of course, other Washingtonians in surrounding communities will be affected, too. But none more so than the citizens of Redmond, the state's 15th largest municipality - take it from one of them!

The Bicycle Capital of the Northwest lies at the eastern end of State Route 520, one of the state's busiest arterials.

If you've ever grudgingly driven your vehicle under the Interstate 405 interchange in midafternoon and joined the long (and slow moving) line to cross the floating bridge into Seattle then you know what I mean.

On bad days the line stretches all the way back to Overlake, where the Microsoft campus is located. (Take 520 eastbound into Redmond, and you'll see the headquarters of the world's largest and richest software company, visible along the sides of the highway).

The city is home to nearly fifty thousand people - and that's not counting the fine citizens who live in neighboring cities like Kirkland, Woodinville, Duvall, Samammish, and even Bellevue (which has Interstate 90 on its southern end) or unincorporated King County.

The city has a workforce of some seventy thousand, most working in the high-tech or financial sectors (surprisingly, only about a quarter of that number work for Microsoft).

The bottom line is that State Route 520 is an extremely important arterial. If the floating bridge were to become unusable there would be dire consequences, and not just for solo drivers.

Try sitting on the beach in Seattle's Madison Park and watch the traffic on the floating bridge during the middle of a weekday - and count the number of buses you'll see traversing the bridge in five minutes. There are a lot, including one of Sound Transit's busiest runs, the 545 Express.

I've ridden the 545 express myself from downtown Redmond into downtown Seattle. It usually beats taking your own vehicle. The trip is practically just as fast, (occassionally faster if traffic is bad) and you don't have to worry about parking or driving. It's so heavily used that Sound Transit has had to keep adding more buses to meet the demand.

But the 545 will cease to be an express route if the 520 bridge suddenly shuts down. WSDOT says travel time between Seattle and Redmond would nearly double from an average of 33 minutes to 55 minutes during the evening commute if the bridge were to be unavailable.

The floating bridge is old and crumbling. It has outlived its useful life. As the recent windstorm has shown, the danger of it being closed off is very real and very ominous.

Don't be fooled by the few naysayers out there. WSDOT says that crews have had to seal close to 30,000 linear feet of floating bridge pontoon cracks since 1993.

The state has already waited too long to replace the bridge. Even with the passage of the 2005 Transportation Package there still isn't enough money to replace it.

The perferred alternative, a six lane bridge, is estimated to cost between $2.3 and $3.1 billion to design and build.

The six lane bridge would include four general purpose lanes, two carpool/transit lanes, a bicycle and pedestrian path, shoulders built to current WSDOT/FHWA standards, and pontoons that would be able to accomodate high capacity transit, such as Sound Transit's Link Light Rail system.

But most importantly, the new floating bridge (when it's built, and no matter how many lanes) will be safe and not vulnerable to earthquakes, windstorms, or other hazards.

We're fortunate to have gotten lucky again - but our luck just isn't going to last. We can't afford to wait for a disaster to strike - unless we want to be the victims of a tragedy similar to what befell New Orleans.

Defeating Initiative 912 last autumn was the first step, but plenty of work remains. Tim Eyman must be stopped in his attempt to repeal the other half of the 2005 Transportation Package.

And voters in the Seattle metropolitan area must be persuaded to look to the future and approve the collection of additional revenues to pay for a new bridge.

We can't afford to continue the gamble. It's time to invest in transportation infrastructure in Washington State and replace the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge.

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