The existing 520 plans serve the city extremely well. That’s my position and the city’s position,” stressed Richard Conlin, former president of the Seattle City Council and current chair of SR 520 Special Committee and chair of the council’s Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee. The last public record of a SR 520 Special Committee meeting was Oct. 11, 2011.
“We have worked on this issue for 15 years. There is nothing new or a surprise,” Conlin observed. “We now have a workable design. We have a design that works really well.”
When asked to comment on state Route 520’s impact on the city, City Council president Sally Clark deferred her comments to Conlin; Tom Rasmussen, chair of the council’s Transportation Committee, did the same. Neither of the mayor’s two deputy mayors responded to our e-mails.
The city’s lack of action is troublesome because, on Oct. 24, 2011, the City Council approved the Memo of Understanding (MOU) between the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and the City of Seattle, outlining their respective roles and responsibilities as noted in Ordinance 1233733. The mayor signed the MOU the next day — a full nine months ago.
Lawyer Gene Brandzel, president of the Madison Park Community Council, noted that a key MOU provision requires the city to take the initiative to, among other things, “convene a community advisory group to participate in developing a Neighborhood Traffic Management Plan,” to “identify community traffic management concerns and issues through a…community process” and to “identify potential traffic management solutions, including but not limited to, development of an intelligent transportation system plan for Montlake Boulevard and 23rd Avenue.”
But, as Brandzel indicates, “No action of any kind has been taken by the city to meet the city’s responsibilities in the ordinance and the MOU, even though it is clear that whatever final plan the state comes up with will greatly increase traffic volume on a major arterial, Montlake and 23rd Avenue. This street is already so overburdened that it is known as the ‘Montlake mess.’”
While there have been community meetings with neighborhood representatives, those meetings are managed by WSDOT as part of its 106 Technical Committee requirements, and they differ in content from the MOU requirements.
Start discussing impacts now
Brandzel calls on the city to act now to appoint the Community Advisory Committee, as required by and agreed to in the MOU.
“Isn’t it time to start the process called for in the ordinance and the MOU so that the construction of the west approach, over Foster Island to Montlake, can begin? This gives us time to design an ‘intelligent transportation’ plan for our neighborhoods and businesses, rather than waiting until the last minute to act,” he said.
“The city should not be burdened with eight to 10 years of traffic disruption. Our businesses and neighborhoods cannot withstand that prolonged upheaval. We already can see what is happening to businesses with the viaduct construction and parking. Our city will be irreparably damaged if these transportation and design issues are not addressed now,” he continued.
The fiscal note that accompanied this Ordinance and MOU also stated: “This legislation does not have any financial obligations.” It also stated that the legislation doesn’t have “financial or long-term implications.”
When asked if there were “possible alternatives to the legislation,” the answer was “none.”
This may be the city’s way of protecting itself from any SR 520 costs. However, the MOU was apparently not important enough for public notices or public hearings. The fiscal note went on to answer “no” to the need for a public notice in the Daily Journal of Commerce and to a public hearing, and it specifically noted that the legislation did not affect a piece of property, according to the city’s 520 Special Committee, Fiscal Note, Oct. 3, 2011.
It is difficult to believe there would be no impact to Seattle properties when a new, six-lane bridge merges onto Seattle streets.
By WSDOT’s own admission, there are not enough funds for all of the state’s major transportation projects — much less, funds to repair a desperately deteriorating Interstate 5.
The MOU documents cite $4.65 billion for the entire project, of which $2.62 billion is currently funded from Medina to state Route 202, including the pontoons and the floating portion of the bridge.
It also cites a $2.03 billion shortfall to complete the balance of SR 520 from the western high-rise on SR 520 to I-5. (Note: When WSDOT and the city refer to “the floating bridge,” they refer only to the “floating” part of the bridge between the high-rise and Medina, not the entire bridge.)
“WSDOT is financially irresponsible with SR 520,” observed Ted Lane, economist and principal of Thomas/Lane Associates. “We are basically being told by WSDOT, it is either the bridge they planned or nothing — no alternatives have been considered. What we are left with is a bridge that runs out of money at the western high-rise. The bridge will either transition to the existing four-lane bridge there or, even the best-case scenario, [SR] 520 will still only go to Montlake…. There will be no improvement in transportation or safety here in the city.”
Lane points out that WSDOT’s assumption about funds to complete the project are most likely flawed. Given the deadlock in Washington, D.C., the likelihood of federal dollars diminishes. “Even if we did get the money, it would be a loan, and it would still not make the connection to I-5,” he said.
Even Sen. Ed Murray said he is unsure of additional federal funds.
WSDOT suggests tolling Interstate 90 for SR 520, but the latest Tim Eyman initiative on tolling and taxes was roundly supported in most parts of the state. Only three counties in Eastern Washington opposed the Eyman initiative, which means it may be unlikely for the state Legislature to vote to toll I-90.
Waiting to be heard
WSDOT’s disregard of alternatives is a contributing reason for the Coalition for a Sustainable 520’s lawsuit that will be heard in federal court at 10 a.m. Tuesday, July 10. Decision time can range from one day to three months.
In the meantime, we must demand that the city work with neighborhoods and appoint the Community Advisory Committee required by the MOU and agreed to in October 2011.
KATHLEEN O’CONNOR is Madison Park’s representative to the 106 Technical Advisory Committee on state Route 520.