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Sunday, March 16, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Highway 520: Going Nowhere Fast

Seattle Times Eastside Bureau

Between I-5 and I-405, Highway 520 is woefully overburdened and getting worse. There's consensus about that. But arguments abound about how to address the problem - so much so that a solution may not be achieved for years. Meanwhile, for thousands and thousands, the trip across Lake Washington has become a daily trial by traffic.

Dan Piraino, a 16-year veteran of what has become the daily crawl along Highway 520, can vouch that there was a time when the highway was as clear as August in Seattle and the commute was an easy 15-mile trip.

Today, the research scientist must roll out of bed by 5:30 a.m. to beat traffic and has joined a van pool to capitalize on car-pool lanes. If he were to drive his own car, he would be in congestion for an hour or more.

"The backups start earlier and earlier," said Piraino, who commutes from Seattle to Physio-Control in Redmond. "One of these days, it's not going to be tolerable anymore."

For many, it's intolerable now. Built to standards of the 1950s, the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge routinely carries twice as many vehicles as it was designed to handle. Traffic backs up to Interstate 5 and east of I-405 almost daily.

Bad as it is, there's no assurance anything will be done about the 520 mess before Piraino's 6-year-old daughter graduates from college. Yet, despite a long history of failed attempts to improve 520, a new effort to find a solution is raising hopes of proponents.

There are new concerns about the soundness of the bridge and a growing fear that traffic is getting so bad it will strangle economic growth.

Some recent developments:

-- The state's chief bridge engineer says some $88 million in immediate and long-term repairs are needed if the bridge is to remain safe and usable for another 20 years. That's about enough time to plan, fund and build a new bridge.

-- An informal coalition of Eastside business leaders, backed by the city of Bellevue, has been meeting with legislators, and Seattle and Eastside residents to drum up support for a $3 million study of how best to move people and freight across the north end of Lake Washington. Support for the study seems to be growing and includes endorsements last week from the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the Montlake Community Club.

-- A new Bellevue Transportation Department study shows that cross-lake drivers are overwhelming city streets as they head to Interstate 90 trying to avoid Highway 520 backups.

Seven studies, but no action

One thing is sure: A new bridge or bridge improvements won't be built quickly or without a battle. It took 14 years of planning and argument to build the first 520 bridge. Thirty years of debate preceded completion of I-90 across the lake.

Among the objections to a larger bridge: concerns of residents at each end that it would add traffic through their neighborhoods, the high cost of construction, and beliefs that expanding capacity isn't a smart way to deal with worsening congestion.

At least seven major studies have looked at ways to cut congestion on 520, the first just nine years after the bridge opened. Adding rail service or making changes to inspire car pooling were among the ideas studied. But no proposal from any of these studies was implemented.

The last study, in 1993, by Washington Transportation Partners (WTP), a public-private partnership, suggested spending $550 million to $900 million to either replace the bridge or build a parallel structure with bus and car-pool lanes. The proposal to finance the job with tolls so angered residents on both sides of the bridge that it was abandoned.

Meanwhile, traffic jams worsened as Microsoft led an employment boom that put thousands more commuters on the road. Almost as many of Microsoft's 9,000 Redmond employees commute to work from Seattle as from the Eastside.

Last spring, representatives from Boeing, Weyerhaeuser, Bellevue Square and other economic powerhouses met quietly on the Microsoft campus to discuss concerns that the region's economic vitality would wither should highways become so clogged employees couldn't get to work and freight couldn't get to market.

They urged the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) to include a $3 million study of Highway 520 and possible construction of new transit lanes across the lake in last fall's (successful) $3.9 billion ballot issue.

But the RTA board refused on grounds that a bridge study would doom its transit plan a second time.

Business leaders are again pushing for a $3 million study of the "520 corridor." Half of the money would come from the state through a transportation-revenue package that hasn't yet been funded. The Puget Sound Regional Council is applying for federal matching funds to pay for the rest.

"We can't ignore it any more. It's a critical corridor. There's too much growth on the Eastside to ignore it," said Barry Murphy, Microsoft's regional government-affairs manager.

But choosing which options to study is a political hot potato. John Okamoto, the Department of Transportation's regional administrator, proposes that a broad-based advisory committee decide.

Some ideas already making the rounds: better roads around the north end of the lake; a new bridge farther north; a wider 520 bridge; restricting some lanes to car pools, buses or light rail; and discouraging auto use by imposing tolls or work-site parking fees.

Many activists, including members of "No Expansion of 520," say bigger freeways aren't the answer.

"The era of the single-occupant vehicle, I think, is coming to an end. It's plain we can't keep on building highways so everyone can go to work in his or her own car and return home in his or her own car," said Cornelius Peck, former UW law professor and co-founder of the Seattle-based group.

Peck's view is supported by a recent state Department of Transportation (DOT) analysis of possible improvements to Interstate 405, which says that even if the state spent $2 billion to add as many as three lanes in each direction, average traffic speeds would still fall to 28 miles per hour by 2020.

No money for construction

Even if a study of 520 were to be done, there's no money in state coffers to carry out its recommendations. With gas-tax revenue outpaced by construction costs, DOT has only enough money to maintain existing highways.

Highway advocates in the Legislature already face an uphill battle to pass a revenue package that would generate $647 million in new highway funds over the next two years and $869 million the following two years. DOT's most recent estimates for adding two new transit lanes and making other fixes to the 520 bridge range from $710 million to $890 million. Winning Eastern Washington legislators' support for using the state's entire highway-building budget on a Seattle-area project would be difficult, to say the least.

It isn't clear whether - or when - the 520 bridge will rise to the top of DOT's priority list. Unless it were funded with tolls, it would have to compete with other projects such as adding more high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes to the state's freeways, expanding the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and completing Highway 509 through SeaTac.

Just finishing the high-priority HOV system would cost $1.5 billion.

"Highway 520 fits into the highly congested category, but so do numerous other corridors throughout the state," said Randy Hain, DOT's highway-construction manager.

Rep. Karen Schmidt, R-Bainbridge Island, chairwoman of the Legislative Transportation Committee, questions whether it's even worth studying the 520 corridor when there's no money for construction.

Which brings the discussion back to the dreaded subject of tolls.

"People have short memories," notes Jared Smith, project manager of the ill-fated WTP toll proposal. "There isn't a bridge in the state that wasn't federally funded that wasn't built without tolls."

The I-90 bridge is toll-free, but it was built as part of the interstate highway system. The original Mercer Island and 520 bridges were both built with tolls.

Alternatively, a 520-bridge project could be funded through a special taxing district, suggests Microsoft's Murphy. And Senate Majority Leader Dan McDonald notes that a transportation district already exists - the Regional Transit Authority.

`Residents . . . need to talk'

For now, advocates of a better bridge believe the first step is a comprehensive study of transportation needs on the north end of Lake Washington.

"Residents along the corridor are really going to need to talk to one another," said Bruce Nurse, vice president of Kemper Development, whose president, Kemper Freeman Jr., has long advocated more freeway lanes. "We (the business community) feel the initiative needs to come from that level rather than the DOT or the business community."

In the meantime, Piraino gets up before the sun rises to beat the heavy traffic. He may have to give up the fight and move his family near his job on the Eastside, he said.

As for the future bridge, he has an idea of his own. "One of my wishes is that we'd turn 520 into transit-only," he said. "It would probably go over like a lead balloon."

------------- Highway costs -------------

It's expected state road needs will exceed revenues by more than $15 billion over the next 20 years. Here are some possible sources of additional money and how much they might generate each year:

-- Increase gas tax 1 cent per gallon: $32 million

-- Extend 6.5 percent state sales tax to gasoline: $271 million

-- Raise gas tax in accord with Initiative 601 growth factor: $49 million (reaches $98 million by 2002)

-- Redirect motor-vehicle excise-tax revenues from state general fund: $208 million

-- Increase motor-vehicle excise tax by 0.1 percent: $39 million

-- Exempt the state Department of Transportation from having to pay sales tax on highway contracts: $27 million

-- Impose a $1 toll each way on Evergreen Point Floating Bridge: $36.5 million

Numbers are 1997-2003 averages except for toll revenue (based on approximate 1995 traffic volume). Source: State Department of Transportation

- Keith Ervin

------------------------ Key dates for 520 bridge ------------------------

July 1940: First bridge across Lake Washington, the Mercer Island Floating Bridge, opens.

July 1949: Lake Washington Good Roads Association asks State Toll Bridge Authority to survey locations for a second Lake Washington bridge.

April 1950: Traffic on Mercer Island Bridge approaches its capacity of 20,000 cars per day.

March 1953: Legislature authorizes study on financing a $13.7 million bridge.

April 1953: Nine hundred Montlake-area residents sign petition opposing a bridge through their neighborhood.

July 1953: Study begins on six alternative alignments, between Juanita on the north and Mercer Island on the south.

August 1954: Toll Bridge Authority selects Montlake-to-Evergreen Point route. Construction is scheduled to start in eight months.

1955: Defenders of the UW Arboretum and proponents of a Kirkland-to-Sand Point bridge attack the plan. Years of debate follow.

July 1960: State sells $30 million in bonds to finance a floating bridge between Evergreen Point and Montlake.

August 1963: Gov. Al Rosellini cuts a ribbon on the $34 million bridge. The toll is 35 cents each way. Rosellini says planning has begun on a toll-free third bridge.

June 1979: Construction bonds are paid off, and toll is lifted.

May 1989: A second Mercer Island bridge opens, extending I-90 westward to Seattle and adding three general-purpose lanes and two carpool lanes.

November 1990: The original Mercer Island floating bridge sinks in a storm during reconstruction.

September 1993: The Mercer Island bridge is reopened.

July 1994: Montlake-based group, "No Expansion of 520," opposes public-private partnership to fund car-pool and bike lanes through a $1 toll on Evergreen Point Bridge. Eastside residents join opposition to toll bridge.

June 1995: Gov. Mike Lowry signs law requiring public vote on toll-bridge proposal. Project is generally viewed as dead.

March 1996: Representatives of Boeing, Microsoft, Weyerhaeuser and other businesses ask the Regional Transit Authority to fund a study on expanding the 520 bridge. RTA Board rejects the suggestion for fear it will lose votes on transit plan.

January 1997: State Transportation Commission asks the Legislature to appropriate $1.5 million to study the Highway 520 corridor between Seattle and Redmond.

- Keith Ervin

-------------------------------------- Key players to watch in the 520 debate --------------------------------------

-- Sid Morrison - As state transportation secretary, his top priority is to boost the Department of Transportation's depleted funding base. He doubts the state will be able to afford a major construction project on Highway 520 unless it imposes tolls.

-- Aubrey Davis - King County's representative to the state Transportation Commission isn't sure what to do about Highway 520. But with a history as regional highway administrator for the federal government and a broker of the deal that built the Interstate 90 bridge, he knows what it takes to get the support and funds for a major project. He could be an important friend - or obstacle - to advocates of a new Evergreen Point bridge.

-- Sarah Skoglund - The energetic new director of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce has emerged as a leader of the Eastside's effort to find a solution. She's won the support of other Eastside business groups and the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and has opened discussions with bridge neighbors on both sides of the lake.

-- Seattle Mayor Norm Rice - He's convinced that the Mount Baker neighborhood was not well treated when Interstate 90 went through. The mayor wants to make sure the city and Montlake-area neighborhoods have seats at the table before a study is conducted. Seattle is not promoting or discouraging a corridor study, but insists that any new lanes across the lake be reserved for transit only.

-- Cornelius Peck - A Portage Bay resident, he helped form the activist group "No Expansion of 520," mobilizing opponents from Madison Park to Ravenna-Bryant to kill the 1993 toll-bridge proposal.

-- Daniel Becker - Elected to the Medina City Council after opposing toll-financed bridge expansion, he has been named "point man" on the Highway 520 issue by the cities of Medina, Clyde Hill and Hunts Point. He supports a study, but not if it focuses only on the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge.

-- Karen Schmidt - Highway 520 isn't high on the radar screen of the chairwoman of the House and joint legislative transportation committees. But the Bainbridge Island Republican is fighting for new funding sources that could build more highways.

-- Dan McDonald - The Senate majority leader hails from Bellevue and is a strong supporter of a 520 corridor study, but cool to new gas taxes. He proposes funding construction of a new or improved bridge by levying taxes through the Regional Transit Authority.

-- Bill Gates - Microsoft's co-founder and chief executive officer hasn't personally come out swinging on the issue, but the software giant, along with Boeing and other businesses, supports a corridor study. Don't be surprised if Gates exerts his personal influence at some point. Microsoft has a huge stake in improving transportation between Seattle and the Eastside.

- Keith Ervin

-------- Meetings --------

On March 18, residents from Medina, Yarrow Point and Clyde Hill will meet with Department of Transportation officials at 7 p.m. at the Clyde Hill Town Hall, 9605 N.E. 24th St. to discuss 520 options.

On April 16, the state Transportation Commission will gather in Bellevue for a meeting that is expected to include a tour of the 520 bridge. The meeting begins at 8 a.m. at the West Coast Bellevue Hotel, 625 116th Ave. N.E.

------------------ What Do You Think? ------------------

What do you think should be done about growing cross-lake traffic congestion? What else would you like to know about regional traffic trouble spots and possible alternatives? We'd like to hear your ideas and questions. Leave a message on our Gridlock Hotline at 464-8473, fax us at 453-0449 or send e-mail to east@seatimes.com. Letters should be addressed to Gridlock, Seattle Times Eastside Bureau, 10777 Main St., Suite 100, Bellevue, WA 98004.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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