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 2, 2010

Seattle's scheme to eliminate HOV lanes from new SR 520 bridge is outrageous

Yesterday morning, a cadre of elected leaders representing Seattle - Mayor Mike McGinn, City Councilmembers Nick Licata and Mike O'Brien, Speaker Frank Chopp, Representative Jamie Pedersen, and Senator Ed Murray - held a well attended news conference surrounded by constituents in the Washington Park Arboretum to formally state their opposition to the state's preferred alternate for replacing the SR 520 bridge span, Option A+.

The group doesn't deny that we need a new bridge across Lake Washington. What it wants is a bridge footprint smaller than what the plans currently call for. The members of the group seem to have convinced themselves that if we throw the HOV lanes out of the bridge plans and replace them with "transit-only" lanes, the bridge's footprint will be smaller.

We disagree. We've seen no evidence that would back up such an assertion. Buses and trains require a lot of room to manuever. In fact, they require more room than cars do. We certainly won't save space on the bridge itself building isolated "transit-only" lanes that are physically seperated from what we'll call the solo lanes.

So what is the "benefit" of not having HOV lanes? Supposedly, it's smaller ramps (and that's all), but again, we've seen no evidence that demonstrates that replacing the HOV lanes with "transit-only" space would result in smaller ramps.

We understand and appreciate that westsiders want a compact Montlake interchange that doesn't cover the entire area betwen the Montlake and University District neighborhoods in concrete and asphalt.

At the same time, we Eastsiders (most of us at NPI live on the Eastside) are sick and tired of watching people who represent Seattle and run Seattle delay this project by throwing up roadblocks. Senator Rodney Tom put it well when he told the Seattle Times: "To me, every time they turn the corner they come up with a new wrinkle. We have an agreement; let's move forward."

In 2005, when we at NPI fought to save the gas tax increase from being repealed, we talked about the need to quickly replace vulnerable structures like the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Evergreen Point Floating Bridge before disaster struck.

Four and a half years later, we are still arguing over the design of both of those megaprojects, with most of the repeated cries of "Stop! Let's rethink everything... again!" coming from Seattle.

Let me say this as plainly and clearly as I can: The new SR 520 floating bridge must include high occupancy vehicle lanes.

Seattle should be grateful that the Eastside is currently represented by pragmatic Democrats instead of Republican road warriors (remember Jim Horn?) We on the Eastside are willing to support the construction of a replacement bridge that lacks new lanes for solo drivers. That's a pretty big concession considering that we still have plenty of pavement-hungry conservatives living over here.

However, our support for a replacement bridge with no new solo lanes hinges on the inclusion of high occupancy vehicle lanes.

Unlike Seattle, we have very few neighborhoods that could be described as walkable or pedestrian friendly. Downtown Bellevue, Kirkland, and Redmond are becoming much denser and easier to navigate on foot, but most Eastsiders live in subdivisons that are only readily accessible by car, and not well served by transit.

To atone for having chosen to live in such an auto-dependent place, many Eastsiders commute to work by carpooling and vanpooling, or taking advantage of shuttles provided by their employers (for example, Microsoft's Connector). When they get on the highway (which is where most of the congestion is), they promptly take advantage of HOV ramps and HOV lanes to bypass traffic. The value of HOV lanes is that they reward drivers who act sustainably.

We aggressively fought Tim Eyman's Initiative 985 in part because we wanted to be able to strengthen our HOV system in the future (and we obviously could not do that if it was destroyed). The Evergreen Point Floating Bridge has always been the biggest missing link in the HOV system. Not coincidentally, that's also where some of our region's worst traffic congestion is.

Today, vanpools and carpools coming from the east are forced to merge into the "general purpose" lanes before entering the bridgespan.

This is one of the major factors that creates the traffic phenomenon I call the Great Lake Washington Line (it's also been called the Kirkland Crawl) which is one of Puget Sound's worst traffic jams.

It can be seen pretty much every weekday morning and evening on WSDOT's traffic map: a black and red band typically stretching from the I-405 interchange to the water's edge. The state has added metered onramps to attempt to mitigate the congestion, but they haven't had much effect.

WSDOT, armed with a federal grant, is now in the process of adding variable speed limit signs over the stretch of SR 520 where the Line materializes, but this also won't have much more than a cosmetic effect.

The new bridge, on the other hand, holds more promise, because if it is built according to the current plans, buses, carpools, vanpools, and shuttles won't have to merge when they reach Evergreen Point. They'll be able to stay in HOV lanes. That would speed up travel for everyone trying to get across the lake.

But now Mayor Mike McGinn, Speaker Frank Chopp, and some of their some of their whiniest, noisiest constitutents want to take away the long planned right-of-way on the new bridge from people who rideshare.

Really... it's just unbelievable.

Chopp, especially, should know better. The Eastside is the linchpin of the majority he has built in the state House of Representatives. By obstructing the progress of one of the Eastside's most important priorities, he risks angering the very voters who (indirectly) made it possible for him to be Speaker.

And people on the Eastside are starting to get angry. I've seen the disgust reflected in the questions that my neighbors ask of our legislators at town halls. They want to know why the people who represent Seattle so often act like children.

I'm not kidding; that's the impression that people on this side of the lake have. And sadly, it doesn't seem to be wrong, either.

At this point, our patience is really starting to wear thin.

We will happily support having the state investigate ways to minimize the footprint of the rebuilt SR 520 as it passes through Seattle.

But we won't permit HOV lanes to be eliminated from the new bridge.

POSTSCRIPT: I forgot to mention that the current plans for the bridge do not preclude the state and Sound Transit from adding high capacity transit (or, in other words, light rail) to the bridge in the future. Years from now, when we actually have the money, we can add a light rail spur that goes across State Route 520.

In the meantime, we'll have the HOV lanes, which are essentially enhanced transit lanes that carpools and vanpools can make use of. For a good explanation of why new general purpose lanes are not part of the designs for the new SR 520 bridge, see Jason's post about capacity efficiency.


Blogger sayshere said...

Widening roads to deal with a traffic problem is like buying larger pants to deal with a weight problem. This region needs an inviting and diverse transportation portfolio, which means more rail and more bike lanes to compliment our impressive roadways.

February 3, 2010 1:38 AM  

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