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February 15, 2005

Pie in the Sky

The Seattle Times has a weakness for crazy ideas about improving Seattle. If you have a notion on how to speed traffic, beautify the waterfront, or create a postmodern conurbation stretching from Vancouver to Eugene, chances are you can get on the front page of the Opinion section in the Sunday paper.

Last Sunday they outdid themselves with a plan to redo highway 520 through Montlake (if you don't live in Seattle, you may want to stop here). One sure sign that this was an unusually crack-infested plan was the fact that it was accompanied by an editorial explaining why they print these kinds of articles. But the other plans that the editorial refers to -- a bridge across Puget Sound, ferry service across Lake Washington, NASCAR track in Snohomish County -- are paragons of stone-cold reality compared to this latest scheme.

The basic idea is to replace the highway through Montlake with a suspension bridge. The current highway drops a hundred feet or so as it crosses Portage Bay, then bends to aim towards the lake. No problem, just design a suspension bridge that drops a hundred feet and bends at one of the towers (no, really). Then for added effect, from that same tower that has the bend, a third section of bridge juts out sideways and crosses over to Husky Stadium. And of course that means there is a highway interchange also, with the flyover ramps neatly threaded between the suspender cables. The paper's site doesn't have the picture that was included, but you can't really appreciate it without one, so here it is, by Rob Wilkinson of the Montlake Community Club:

Let's assume he really meant a cable-stayed bridge, not a suspension bridge. I still can't quite see how he would get the bend and the interchange. Of course he has to toss out the name Santiago Calatrava, the current pixie dust for anyone seeking to promote a radical bridge design.

Then he points out that the state's proposal to replace the bridge would cost $2.9 billion, but the Millau Viaduct only cost about $500 million, so his plan should be cheaper. Right!! Because the Millau Viaduct had an interchange and a big elevation change and crossed a lake that was hundreds of feet deep...didn't it? Doesn't everyone know that the only consideration when pricing a bridge is the length? By that logic, the Laerdal Tunnel is 15 miles long and only cost $114 million, so we should be able to build a 2-mile tunnel under Lake Washington for about $15 million.

I think if you boil this down to actual reasonable suggestion, he is saying that 520 should cross Montlake on an elevated highway, and that having a connection across to Husky Stadium would improve traffic.

The first I find doubtful. 520 mostly crosses Montlake in a below grade cut, and I would suspect that most people would prefer putting a lid over that to having a highway overheard.

The second is a reasonable idea. The "ramps to nowhere" on 520 by the Arboretum were originally intended to connect to two other highways: the Anderson Freeway, which would have plowed through the Arboretum, and a tunnel to where Husky Stadium is. Of course it would be nice to have this connection; it's easy to propose such ideas if you ignore things like cost, engineering feasability, and the fact that people would go apeshit if you actually tried to put a bridge there.

What truly annoys me is the attitude of "the Department of Transportation is hidebound and can't really be creative in solving problems, so we need geniuses like us to come up with clever solutions." It's ISTYS syndrome all over again. Funny that the paper would print things like this and then wonder why nobody trusts government and people are losing their faith in the media. Just a coincidence, I'm sure.

Posted by AdamBa at February 15, 2005 10:35 PM

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But, but, but...I *am* smarter than WSDOT.

OK, perhaps not. But bear with me here becuase I work in Kirkland and live in Bryant (east Ravenna, behind U Village) and deal with a problem caused by WSDOT.

The current situation with Montlake-520 is horrific. I know from comparison, I lived in SF/Berkeley for 7 years. In the morning, there are frequently (3/4 days this week) 30-minute backups on surface streets from the Montlake onramp back to U Village. I live behind U Village, and on mornings such as these, it takes me less time to drive way out of my way through the U District, get on I-5 South, and then go 520 West. Longer distance, less direct. Shorter time.

The cause of this (apart from too many cars on teh road--duh--let's take that as a given) is a single metering light that was installed on the 520-Montlake onramp in 1996, was turned on for the morning commute in 2000, and is intended to reduce the backups on I-5. This punishes the people who chose to live closer to their commute (520) in order to favor thru-traffic on I-5 (understandable) and people who live farther from their commute (North Seattle). Sour grapes, perhaps.

So fine, let's agree that avoiding backups on I-5 is WSDOT's #1 priority.

Where I get really frustrated is when I write WSDOT and they e-mail me back--they're really quite polite and responsive, nothing like the career bureaucrats down in California--saying that the problem is capacity on 520. Low capacity = backups on I-5.

Yet, when considering all the alternatives to the 520 rebuild, they threw out the 8-lane alternative--the only one that would have added extra capacity for non-carpoolers. (And let's face it, carpooling is fine if you work for a large company like Microsoft and can probably find a coworker near your neighborhood...but for those of us working for small employers, it's an abstract impossibility.) And why did they throw that alternative out? Because too much capacity on 520 would have caused backups on I-5.

Wait a second. I thought it was inadequate 520 capacity that caused backups on I-5. Do you mean that the capacity has to be at some magic "just right" level to reduce backups on I-5? How would you determine that level? Wouldn't it change over time?

So instead they're going to spend $2.9 billion on a solution that ignores the problem, which is TOO MANY CARS ON NOT ENOUGH ROADWAY. (You think it's bad now? Wait until 2020.)

Anyway, the WSDOT folks, while very polite and earnest, yet firm (sort of like a good elementary school teacher), are putting an awful lot of reliance on some computer models that project traffic growth and likely commuter behavior. Who designs those models? Might they be flawed? Might they be subject to political pressure and preconceived notions, and therefore designed to favor a particular outcome?

All this editorialist was doing was trying to urge WSDOT to think a little bit deeper. New exits! New form factors! Avoid Montlake--a two-lange bridge that has to RISE to let SHIP TRAFFIC THROUGH (how 1947 is that?) altogether.

Something other than adding a $2.9 million HOV lane.

P.S. Why the heck doesn't comments support the paragraph tag?

Posted by: at February 17, 2005 01:37 PM

Ah, never mind, it does support the paragraph tag. Just not in preview. Thanks.

Posted by: mattydread at February 17, 2005 01:40 PM

There are two different I-5/520 interactons. Lack of capacity going east causes backups on I-5 getting 520. Too much capacity going west causes backups on I-5 going away from 520. To help I-5, you really want 4 lanes going east and 2 going west, or something.

Plus the Montlake entrances have a problem with short merge lanes at 520, so they need to pulse the traffic (via an on-ramp light) to help 520 traffic flow.

As I said, if you boil their proposal down, the main idea is adding a highway from 520 to Montlake -- this isn't a bad idea from a capacity viewpoint, but would cost more, uglify the neighborhood, and you couldn't just "sneak" the ramps for the intersection in like he did in his drawing. Go to MOHAI one time and look at the "Seattle 150" exhibit (or whatever it is called) which has a picture in it of what the ramps for the intersection between 520 and the tunnel to Husky Stadium would have looked like -- even more concrete and pilings covering the water around the arboretum.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at February 18, 2005 05:38 AM


I saw your name on CNet and had to write in to say hi.

Its Kelly from osOpinion.

Posted by: Kelly McNeill at February 22, 2005 08:47 AM