GUEST COLUMN | SR 520: An interesting confluence

The November election has just moved the future of state Route 520 back to the state Legislature. Tim Eyman’s Initiative 1125 — regarding tolling, among other things — would have been the death knell for SR 520 had it passed. It would have prohibited the use of variable tolls and tolling on one road to fund another; and it would have prohibited light rail for Interstate 90. It still may end up being a major nail in a coffin. 

The problem is I-1125 did not pass with wide margins, which makes legislators nervous. In King County, only 63 percent of the public voted against it. Of the counties that voted against it, only three counties were in Eastern Washington: Spokane, Adams and Whitman. And, in some cases, the counties that opposed it — such as Pierce, Kitsap and Skagit — were nearly tied for and against, according to the Secretary of State’s records. 

“What this means,” said Ted Lane, a principal of the Seattle economics and public-policy firm Thomas/Lane Associates, “is that any future tolling is going to be thought about very carefully in Olympia as legislators measure the mood of the public. While I-1125 failed, if failed by very low margins. Not only that, [SR] 520 is a commuter corridor, not a commercial corridor.”

Commuting vs. commerce

Seattle is home to 9 percent of Washington state’s population.If SR 520 proceeds as proposed, Seattle will consume 45 percent of the state’s transportation improvement dollars over the next decade to replace SR 520 (Evergreen Point Floating Bridge) and SR 99 (Alaskan Way Viaduct), according to studies by Lane and Bill Mundy, a land economist and real estate appraiser. 

Because of the scale of these two Seattle projects and current I-90 improvements, no funds will remain to complete the Keechelus Dam-to-Ellensburg I-90 segment for at least 10 years after the completion of the current project between Hyak and Keechelus Dam. 

This is a significant problem. I-90 is the state’s major commercial corridor, moving more than $500 billion of goods every year from Eastern Washington to Western Washington and the Port of Seattle. But I-90 is literally crumbling. 

To be more specific, more than 6,000 trucks cross the I-90 summit every day. The value of their cargo is estimated at $500 billion per year: 47 percent ($235 billion) is agricultural goods (28 percent) or industrial materials (19 percent); and 53 percent ($265 billion) is other general commercial goods (Safeway, Wal-Mart, etc.).

Prompt delivery is essential because so much is perishable or time-sensitive (meeting container-ship schedules).

Additionally, the Washington State Department of Agriculture estimates that agriculture contributes about $35 billion annually to the state’s economy and provides some 160,000 jobs, about 11 percent of the state’s economy. 

If SR 520 is to proceed as currently planned, coupled with the construction of the new downtown tunnel, it means that 45 percent of Washington state’s transportation dollars will be spent to benefit just 9 percent of the state’s population, largely for commuters rather than commerce — I-5 and I-90 being the major commercial corridors. 

Crisis and opportunity

“The close defeat of I-1125 leaves elected officials on the horns of a dilemma,” Lane said. “There is no groundswell of support for tolling. Not only that, the state faces another $1.4 billion revenue shortfall, and the mood in Washington, D.C. is not one that is shipping funds to the states to build anything. We don’t have the money to build the bridge.” 

Washington State Department of Transportation’s (WSDOT) assumptions on funding —from tolls, including on I-90, and from federal and state governments — are no longer valid. Even WSDOT director Paula Hammond indicated on Page 45 of her August presentation to the “Connecting Washington” task force that not only is there no money to complete SR 520, there are no funds to complete I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass, the U.S. 395 North Spokane Corridor or the I-405 corridor. She also listed 10 other projects that will not even begin, such as the I-5 Columbia Crossing, because of lack of funds. 

“This leaves us a real opportunity to re-think [SR] 520,” Lane said. “We can address congestion concerns [and] safety issues and add the pedestrian/bike lanes with a few modifications to the existing [SR] 520. We could do this for $3 [billion] to $3.3 billion less than the current design. I think the state could find use for that money somewhere.” 

Lane, Mundy and Fran Conley, who chairs the Coalition for a Sustainable 520, have been looking at ways to build a bridge that would add many of the amenities of the proposed bridge while preserving local neighborhoods and reducing costs.

In the meantime, a lawsuit has been filed against WSDOT to stop the SR 520 project. The lawsuit, the economy and the election have given us a rare confluence of forces that offers us the opportunity for a win/win solution here. 

SR 520 was designed and planned more than 14 years ago — traffic has changed, the economy changed and transportation revenues have changed. We live in different times. 

We also have a gubernatorial election coming up. I am sure whoever comes into office would not like to face an expensive lawsuit with even fewer state dollars. 

KATHLEEN O’CONNOR is the Madison Park representative to the SR 520 Section 106 Consulting Party. She can be reached at

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