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Tuesday, June 4, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle-to-Eastside trip is no longer 'reverse' commute

Seattle Times staff reporter

If traffic is any indication, Seattle is turning into a bedroom community for the Eastside.

More than half of the morning trips on the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge now leave the city for the suburbs, formerly sylvan retreats that have become economic powerhouses.

When the bridge opened in 1963, cars flowed in what a reporter explained was "a typical commuter pattern — heavy toward Seattle in the mornings and heavy toward Bellevue in the late afternoons." But sometime around 1997, the "reverse" commute caught up. Traffic became equally nasty both ways all the time.

By last month, 53 percent of morning commuters on Highway 520 were traveling east, according to a sampling from April 30 to May 2.

"What you call the 'reverse commute,' we call the 'normal commute,' " said John Resha, executive director of the Greater Redmond Transportation Management Association, a traffic-relief agency funded by employers.

On the Mercer Island Floating Bridge of Interstate 90, the traditional commute is holding on at 55 percent, with 45 percent of trips moving in the reverse direction, to the east in the morning and to the west in the afternoon.

It all adds up to 300,000 vehicles a day crossing the floating bridges, twice as many as in the mid-1970s. That traffic is generating a political-climate change.

Not just a suburban irritant

Now that Seattle residents find themselves stuck in traffic across the lake, the floating bridges are no longer seen as an irritant only for suburban residents.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels has lent his support to a proposed six-lane replacement of the Evergreen Point bridge. That would add one high-occupancy-vehicle lane in each direction.

"Certainly, the city doesn't exist in a vacuum," said Marianne Bischel, spokeswoman for Nickels. "It's part of the region, and 520 is not just an Eastside issue, just as the (Alaskan Way) Viaduct is a valuable transportation corridor all around this region."

Partial relief might come if voters pass a regional transportation measure, which could be on the ballot this fall. An early proposal earmarks nearly $1.5 billion in taxes and tolls for Highway 520, and state Department of Transportation (DOT) engineers are rushing to design a replacement bridge at or near that cost. An additional $57 million in the package would pay most of the costs to restripe or expand lanes of Interstate 90 for reverse commuters.

Ways to cope

For now, motorists such as Arne Haram of Ballard pretend to be mobile.

When his workday ends at Eastside Group Health Hospital in Redmond, westbound Highway 520 is already bumper to bumper. So he exits, detours south into Bellevue and climbs Clyde Hill — cruising at the maximum speed limit of 25 mph — before he joins the freeway flock again at Hunts Point, just before the floating bridge.

"I get off, and I go through the residential streets," he said as his old Explorer crept toward a ramp-metering light. "Even if it might be the same amount of time, I'd rather 'make progress.' "

His trip lasts an hour. On a good day, 40 minutes.

Highway 520 is so packed that, during DOT's official three-hour afternoon period that ends at 6:15 p.m., the commutes in both directions are equally crowded.

"It's really basically even, because that's how much the freeway holds," said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center. The center develops, coordinates and conducts research in transportation, using the resources of the University of Washington, Washington State University and DOT.

Rather than sit, many Eastside workers shop after work or hang around the office longer; they are stretching "rush hour" out to a full four hours, and if you look at a longer 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. count, a full 54 percent of vehicles on the Evergreen Point bridge are heading into Seattle, 2001 averages show.

"To me, until they widen 520, the only way you're going to get more people in that corridor is by transit," Hallenbeck said.

Microsoft, based in Redmond, offers free bus passes to all employees. Between 20 and 30 percent of the company's Redmond employees take buses or van pools, Resha estimates.

Dave Edelstein, the designer for Microsoft's MSN MapPoint Web site, is 32 and has never had a driver's license. He catches a morning bus from Seattle's Lake City Way to the Convention Place station, where he transfers to one of the Sound Transit 545 coaches that leave every 15 minutes for Redmond.

Company vans with the slogan "Where do you want to go today?" meet them at the new Overlake Transit Center. Edelstein's trip takes 65 to 90 minutes, but he can work or sleep.

"I just feel like we all have a responsibility to make our daily commute not suck for everyone else," Edelstein said. "I can't imagine sitting in traffic, getting stressed out."

As of last fall, only about 5 percent of trans-lake travelers rode buses, and more than two-thirds of those trips were in the traditional direction, to the west in the morning and to the east in the afternoon. But express service for Eastside employees is increasing this year.

That effort brings its own challenges. When Sound Transit added more trips on Route 545 in February, it canceled the slower Route 546, which reached several companies by plying the side streets. So the Route 545 riders are almost exclusively Microsoft employees, while an unknown number of workers from other companies were displaced.

Migrating workers

The 2000 census found the average trip to work for Seattle residents increased three minutes in the past decade but decreased two minutes for Redmond residents.

Many people have reached the breaking point and are moving closer to jobs on the Eastside, Resha said.

His group checked the home ZIP codes of Redmond-area employees and found a slight decrease in the percentage who reside in Seattle, from 19 percent to 17 percent since 1998. On the other hand, job growth on the Eastside is so rapid that the overall number of reverse commuters increased by hundreds.

Microsoft continues to grow, topping 20,000 employees in Redmond. On the Eastside as a whole, employment is expected to grow from 283,000 in 1998 to 371,000 by 2010, a 31 percent increase, according to the Puget Sound Regional Council.

Bellevue and Redmond already have more jobs than residents. They are funneling condos, parks and shops into their downtowns, to make an Eastside address alluring to Eastside employees.

No-go mojo

Interstate 90 is in better shape than Highway 520, but sometimes, especially when the Seattle Mariners are playing, an afternoon drive back to Seattle can take an hour.

Cars queue for more than a mile behind the ramp-metering signal from Bellevue Way Southeast, and many drivers can't even enter the freeway until after 6:30 p.m.

In east Bellevue, major side streets fill with Redmond-bound employees avoiding both 520 and Interstate 405 in downtown Bellevue. Drivers from Seattle line up through the Washington Park Arboretum for Highway 520 — while some West Seattle residents cross Beacon Hill, through a school zone, to join I-90 at Rainier Avenue South on days when Seattle freeways are especially packed.

"The regional facilities are broken, and it impacts the neighborhoods," said Leslie Lloyd, executive director of the Bellevue Downtown Association.

One way to release pressure is to change the two express lanes in the center of I-90, which now go west in the mornings and east in the evenings. A proposal to convert those lanes to two-way HOV traffic, all day long, is favored by Seattle and the pro-transit Transportation Choices Coalition.

But Mercer Island drivers, who gained access to express lanes in exchange for I-90 being widened there a decade ago, would lose their advantage, and they are expected to put up a fight.

Bellevue Transportation Director Goran Sparrman believes such a two-way corridor would be unsafe for car pools because drivers would not be able to see around the buses and little room is available for shoulders.

Bellevue officials favor an alternative layout, which would squeeze a fourth lane, for HOVs, into the existing three lanes of general traffic each way. That would narrow two of the resulting four lanes in each direction to 11 feet, instead of the standard 12-foot width. It also would require construction of new lanes and shoulders on Mercer Island.

Plans for 520

A complete 12-mile reconstruction of Highway 520, from I-5 to Redmond, could exceed $9 billion, including five noise lids for lakefront neighborhoods and safer ramps to Interstate 5.

But the work could be a decade away. As a first phase, engineers are preparing a design for just the floating-bridge portion, with the $1.5 billion in proposed taxes and tolls that may be on the fall ballot.

"Four lanes could be done," says Les Rubstello, DOT's 520 project manager, who emphasizes that studies are very preliminary. "The six-lane is iffy, and the eight is probably doubtful."

The city of Bellevue, though, insists that eight lanes at least be studied.

A six-lane crossing would relieve the westbound choke point at Medina, where an HOV lane ends just before the lake. However, that bottleneck would merely be pushed farther west unless engineers find an effective way to connect the new floating bridge with ramps at Montlake.

Bill Mundy, chairman of the Madison Park SR-520 Committee in Seattle, says a six-lane span would make things worse.

"What they're proposing to do is add more capacity across the bridge without ameliorating any of the congestion in the residential neighborhoods," he said.

Another annoyance is noise, which Mundy suggests could be solved by putting part or all of the highway into an underwater tube.

Tempting fate

If politicians don't authorize a new 520 bridge soon, Mother Nature just might. Engineers say the risks of a seismic collapse are as high as on the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle.

There is also a 1-in-5 chance that the aging Evergreen Point span will be crippled or sunk by a severe "100-year storm," of 92 mph winds, within the next 20 years, according to a report by DOT's Bridge & Structures Office.

Even a "20-year storm" of 77 mph would shorten the bridge's remaining 20- to 25-year lifespan, the report says. And in the past 20 years, there have been seven "20-year" storms.

It wouldn't be the first time a floating bridge here has capsized. During a 1990 storm, while the original Mercer Island bridge was closed for renovation, it sank.

Mike Lindblom can be reached at 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com.

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