Tuesday, February 12, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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It's Eastside vs. Seattle over 520 plan

Seattle Times staff reporters

OLYMPIA -- A fight over the size of a new Highway 520 Bridge threatens to turn into the same kind of mess that has stalled work on the Alaskan Way Viaduct for years.

With powerful interests such as Microsoft, environmental groups and Seattle neighborhoods engaged in the battle, state Rep. Fred Jarrett, D-Mercer Island, said there are ways to come together, but also "lots of chances this could melt down ... . It is easier to imagine a viaduct mess than it is a solution."

Gov. Christine Gregoire tried, failed, and is still trying to find a political solution to replace the middle of the viaduct, which, like the 520 Bridge, is in danger of collapsing in an earthquake.

The core issue in the 520 Bridge fight is whether a new six-lane bridge -- to open in 2018 -- could eventually be widened. In the Legislature, that has turned into a debate over the size of the pontoons that would be used to float the bridge across Lake Washington.

Legislative leaders want a quick decision. They're hoping to put together a finance plan for the project this session in order to move ahead with construction of the pontoons next year. They're worried a prolonged fight could push the cost of the bridge beyond the projected $4 billion.

Eastside interests want pontoons large enough to support a six-lane bridge -- and a future widening of the bridge deck to add "high-capacity transit," such as light rail. A coalition including Microsoft, the Washington Roundtable, the Association of Washington Business and the Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond chambers of commerce has teamed up to support the idea.

On the Seattle side, environmentalists and lakefront neighborhoods want smaller pontoons as an assurance the bridge will never exceed six lanes, with or without light rail. They insist that anything wider would bring intolerable traffic and more concrete ramps near their homes.

At this point, Eastsiders appear more organized and more vigorous in their lobbying efforts.

"I've probably met more with the governor's office in the past three weeks on this issue than on anything," said Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue.

State lawmakers, including House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, the governor and Jarrett are scrambling to find a compromise. They've come up with what some call the "Lego" option: Build the bridge with smaller pontoons to handle six lanes but leave open the option of attaching additional pontoons later to support light-rail or other transit.

It is a political solution, Clibborn said, that allows Eastsiders to hope the bridge can be expanded to carry high-capacity transit. And it allows people living on the west side to hope the bridge will never be expanded beyond six lanes.

In other words, it's a compromise that lets the competing interests believe in completely different outcomes in the future.

"Welcome to my world," said Clibborn, D-Mercer Island. "It's so crazy."

115,000 vehicles a day

Today's four-lane bridge across Lake Washington, built in 1963, is cracking and could be ruined by waves in a severe windstorm. On its west side, columns are eroding from within, and in an earthquake, they could break.

As the debate continues over what to do next, about 115,000 vehicles cross the bridge each weekday.

The roots of the current dispute date to 2006. Microsoft and Eastside lawmakers say they thought they'd reached a deal with state officials that the bridge would be built using a dual set of pontoons that could handle the later addition of rail or bus.

But the deal changed after voters in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties in November rejected Proposition 1, a roads-and-transit tax package that would have put $1.1 billion toward the 520 Bridge.

Gregoire came out with a new plan last month, proposing one row of pontoons, not two. The move was said to be driven by cost. State transportation officials said the change would save $150 million.

But the fight now appears to have little to do with cost, and much more to do with politics.

"In the scope of this project, it's less about the money that's saved and it's more about trying to get to an agreement," Clibborn said.

Eastsiders feel burned.

"We've never been OK with the governor's proposal," said DeLee Shoemaker, Microsoft's government-affairs director. "The Eastside feels that after 10 years of negotiations, we reached a deal in December of 2006 that everyone was comfortable with, and what is being proposed today is not the deal we all agreed to. We're not supportive of it."

Shoemaker and Eastside lawmakers said they will listen to the idea of attaching pontoons at a later date but want proof -- not promises -- that it will work.

Jugesh Kapur, state Department of Transportation (DOT) bridge engineer, said the technique has never been tried before.

"It is going to be difficult," he said, "but not impossible."

Sen. Tom said there's concern on the Eastside that the proposal to add pontoons is an empty promise. "Just sticking bolts from Home Depot on the side of the bridge -- you and I could do that tonight with a little Super Glue," he said.

Meanwhile, Seattle neighborhood leaders -- who are part of a state-run mediation panel to design the bridge -- say they assumed the bridge wouldn't be expandable, after lawmakers and Gregoire last year approved a bill requiring a six-lane bridge.

If rail is eventually added, the trains should run in the HOV lanes, similar to how buses and trains will share downtown Seattle's transit tunnel starting in 2009, said Michael O'Brien, regional chairman of the Sierra Club.

In other words, "six means six," said Paige Miller, executive director for The Arboretum Foundation.

Plans for larger pontoons make no sense, with light rail 40 years away, said Ted Lane, of the Roanoke Park/Portage Bay Community Council.

"Some people have expressed a concern that if you go to large pontoons, and there's no plan to put in light rail quickly, those could be converted into automobile lanes in the future," he said.

Sound Transit isn't likely to pursue light rail across the 520 Bridge until at least the mid-2030s. All its money, and a possible voter-approved tax increase, would be tied up building its first Eastside line across the Interstate 90 Bridge.

The prospects for a 520 light-rail route are questionable. A connection to the Husky Stadium station -- part of a planned north-south main line to open in 2016 -- would require complicated ramps and tunnels.

Kick debate to future

The compromise being developed by Clibborn and other negotiators essentially kicks the debate decades into the future -- and gives both sides the prospect of winning their fight.

Clibborn expects DOT to quickly contract with an outside engineering firm that can say whether attaching pontoons later would work. But she's not sure what will happen if the business interests and Eastside lawmakers aren't satisfied with the findings.

There are also many on the Seattle side who have no interest in the compromise. Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said he can't support anything that would lead people to believe the bridge could be widened later.

Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said the city is staying out of the pontoon dispute. "It's not my fight; I don't need to be engaged in it," he said.

Jarrett said the thing that gives him hope that a solution will be found is that it's an election year.

"To be candid, the thing that is really important here, that should give somebody optimism, is the fact that the governor is running for re-election," he said. "If the governor can't demonstrate she's making progress on transportation ... then it's going to be a real liability for her going against Dino [Rossi]." Rossi is the Republican candidate for governor.

Ron Judd, a senior adviser to Gregoire, said the governor's office is working hard to resolve the problem before the end of the session. Highway 520, he said, "is her No. 1 transportation priority."

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or or Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company


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