April 9, 1:42 PM click here to comment > 10
Light rail is possible on 520…and why we want it
A number of issues have been raised by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and the City Council since I released the Nelson\Nygaard report on light rail on 520 earlier this week. I want to take a minute to address them.
SR 520 and the vision for a better regional light rail system
It has been stated that there is currently no plan at all for light rail in the 520 corridor. Using this as an excuse for not including light rail on 520 represents a lack of vision – pure and simple. Twenty years ago there was no plan and no funding for light rail in Seattle. Sound Transit didn’t even exist. Today, we have built a light rail line that connects Seattle neighborhoods to downtown and SeaTac international airport. Construction is underway to extend the line to Capitol Hill and the University of Washington. We have a fully funded plan to go all the way to Northgate and east to Bellevue. We have shown we are capable of thinking big about our future—a future that includes a transportation system that all the residents of our region can afford. The public sees and supports this larger vision. It is time for the elected leadership to catch up.
The cost of making SR 520 light rail ready
Some concerns have been raised over added costs to the project. Making the bridge stable enough for light rail means adding more pontoons under the mid-span of the bridge. That would cost more money, but it does not mean the project as a whole would be more expensive. First, the pontoons are coming in under budget ($150 million under budget, in fact). Second, by adding light rail, we can reduce the number of auto lanes from Union Bay to I-5, which will reduce the size of the footprint of 520 through most of the Seattle section. That could save a significant amount of money. And here’s the kicker — trying to retrofit the bridge for light rail after it is constructed is likely to be prohibitively expensive. The west end approach, which goes through the Arboretum and residential neighborhoods, is not engineered to incorporate light rail in the current state plan. Making the bridge light rail ready from the start is possible to do, and it will save us money over attempting to add it later.
The time it will take to design for light rail
Objections have been raised over delaying the project to plan properly for light rail. Nelson\Nygaard estimates that it will take an extra six months to a year to incorporate light rail into the plans for 520. That’s not very long. We are building a bridge for the next 75 to 100 years. We have one chance. It makes sense to take a little extra time to get it right.
We have seen that when it matters politically, elected leaders can take bold action on major transportation projects. For example, elected leaders chose a deep-bore tunnel for the waterfront after a lengthy stakeholder process resulted in two alternatives—an elevated rebuild and a surface, transit, and I-5 design—that did not suit them. We know that it is technically possible to design the bridge to accommodate light rail from the start. The question now is whether the leadership exists to make this critical investment in our region’s future.
Building light rail and how it impacts the number of lanes
The current State plan has six lanes of traffic going all the way from I-5 to Medina. The width of this existing plan could allow the shoulders to be narrowed and the lanes restriped to accommodate 8 lanes of traffic across the entire span. The plan I am proposing would prevent that by making SR 520 smaller where it counts – through Seattle’s neighborhoods. By dedicating the two new lanes to high capacity transit and connecting those lanes to the light rail station at the University of Washington, we can also ensure that there are only four lanes of traffic going from roughly Foster Island through to I-5. This will result in a significant reduction in the overall footprint of the bridge as it lands in Seattle. Moreover, by dedicating two of the six lanes to transit and future light rail, we will make it impossible to turn 520 into an eight lane highway because the additional lane width would be required to be used for light rail. Our city must act now, as we have in the past, to stop an expanded highway from degrading our neighborhoods and natural areas.
Posted by: Mayor Mike McGinn