Thursday, March 13, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Building a bridge between Highway 520 combatants

You're sitting in one of the Puget Sound area's hideous traffic jams and you're thinking to yourself, "Why don't those louts in Olympia do something to get me out of this?"

After years of haggling, after numerous battles over plans for a new bridge, warring sides in the rebuilding of Highway 520 have come to a strange, almost eerie agreement.

The rapprochement, of course, is impressionistic in that there is so much more to be decided — and fought over. One wrong move, and the accord, which is a template for future agreements, falls apart.

But the very important fact is there is a framework for funding, a configuration, a plan. The strong hope is that a region that has been high-centered for a very long time has found a way to move forward.

The guts of the agreements:

• The Legislature agrees to finance the new bridge in part through the use of tolls on Highway 520 and perhaps Interstate 90. Lawmakers leave timing of tolling and use on one or two bridges to a task force that makes recommendations to the Legislature next year.

• Lawmakers, working with representatives of communities on both sides of the lake, agree to four general-purpose lanes, plus two lanes for buses and high-occupancy vehicles, and the possibility of two lanes in the future for high-capacity transit.

Both sides may still clamor for more of what they sought in the first place, but the more practical among us see a Legislature with a solution and, at last, some way to improve a bridge that is too small and too beat up to continue as is.

"Everyone had to give up something," said Brad Smith, Microsoft senior vice president and general counsel. Microsoft, like many entities on the Eastside, wanted eight lanes but settled for six. "We cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good," Smith said.

The Bellevue Chamber of Commerce is pleased state lawmakers, Eastsiders in particular, successfully pushed to provide room for future expansion. The organization still wants actual structural supports in place that prove high-capacity transit is coming later.

To the west, certain lawmakers think the "six-plus" plan is too big. Citizens prefer four lanes or six lanes with expensive tunneling and mitigation to protect their neighborhoods.

Politics is the art of the possible, so it is time to stop clinging to earlier positions. There is no sensible place for eight lanes to land on the west side. It is absurd to build a bridge with the same limited capacity as the existing one.

The reasonable compromise is the six-plus plan that has garnered support from almost all sides.

The biggest fear in Olympia is if either side pushes too hard, the very fragile agreement for six lanes plus two future lanes would melt.

Bellevue Mayor Grant Degginger is militantly moderate in his description of what has taken place.

"I would have preferred bigger pontoons that accommodate high-capacity transit, but this is a workable solution," he said. "We're actually doing something, and that's good."

I would say the various sides all but bumped into an agreement. In a way, that is very close to what happened. Lawmakers and constituent groups have been working so long and hard the rapprochement took some people by surprise.

A lot of people worked hard to get to this point.

The list includes Eastside and Westside lawmakers: Deb Eddy, Larry Springer, Rodney Tom, Ross Hunter, Judy Clibborn, House Speaker Frank Chopp, who personally doorbelled Westside communities, Jamie Pedersen, Jim McIntire, and Gov. Christine Gregoire. She coaxed, cajoled and helped make things happen.

Clibborn, the House transportation chairwoman from Mercer Island who is a self-styled Henry Kissinger shuttle diplomat, calls the transportation agreement a real coup. Perhaps it is. It feels tentative in part because both sides are afraid to let their guard down.

Bellevueites asking for pontoons or some sort of supports in advance expect too much. Seattleites seeking overpriced tunnels and unlimited mitigation should settle down, too

For now, practical people dug in and said there has to be a solution, there has to be a new bridge. That is an achievement in a region that thrives on political gridlock.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company


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