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Originally published Sunday, February 13, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnists

A soaring vision for Highway 520

The Washington Department of Transportation will unveil its plans for Highway 520 this summer. We are rolling out a much bolder and innovative...

Special to The Times

The Washington Department of Transportation will unveil its plans for Highway 520 this summer. We are rolling out a much bolder and innovative vision — one that incorporates a suspension-bridge link over Portage Bay and a new exit to unclog traffic near the University of Washington's Husky Stadium.

We agree with state officials that a new, wider, safer floating bridge across Lake Washington is necessary, and that the part of Highway 520 currently propped up on hollow concrete columns is seismically compromised. We also agree that we need better mobility for people and goods in this vital transportation corridor. We share the value that transit must be fast, reliable and efficient.

From here, our vision departs in rather spectacular fashion.

Our daring — but affordable — vision for Highway 520 is a grand civic gesture, a soaring new gateway to Seattle and the University of Washington.


Rob Wilkinson

It is two signature suspension bridges designed by the best architects and engineers in the world.

One bridge would extend from Interstate 5 high above Portage Bay and Montlake and descend to meet a six-lane floating bridge across Lake Washington.

A second high-span bridge from Highway 520 to the Husky Stadium area would take more people where they really want to go. It would take vehicles directly to Northeast Seattle; buses directly to the future University of Washington light-rail station; bicycles directly to the Burke-Gilman Trail; and Husky fans directly to their football game.

Our vision eliminates the infamous Montlake Bridge bottleneck. Vehicles would cross a new signature high-span bridge connecting Highway 520 at the north edge of the Arboretum to an interchange near Husky Stadium and the UW Medical Center.

This reduces the legendary backups from the University Village shopping center, provides congestion relief along Northeast Pacific Street, and improves emergency-vehicle access to UW and Children's hospitals. City arterials return to moving people around the city, instead of storing cars waiting to get onto the highway.

International icons

Just as the Golden Gate Bridge is an unmistakable icon of San Francisco, the Portage Bay Bridge and University of Washington Gateway Bridge will be attractions in their own right.

Tourists will eye the spectacle from the decks of boats below. Real-estate agents will brag about "bridge views," and postcards will feature this new symbol of civic pride.

Our stunning backdrop of blue water, green hills, the Cascades and Olympics is enough to inspire the best architects in the world, such as Santiago Calatrava, who designed the Olympic Stadium in Athens and the new transportation hub for Lower Manhattan. Washington state deserves no less.

Our plan reduces congestion and actually improves the environment. Our vision will reduce noise and air pollution at ground level and bring daylight to acres of wetlands and parks that have been covered since the early 1960s when Highway 520 drove a wedge of concrete through this magnificent landscape.

We will create a continuous greenbelt from Portage Bay to Union Bay and the Arboretum, which could be beautifully landscaped in the Olmsted brothers' tradition, a new amenity for all. Ramps to and from the Arboretum area will be reconstructed with bicycle access to a path across the lake.

Improved transit connections

Our vision is compatible with plans for a lid in the area where Highway 520 and Interstate 5 connect. Unlike the state's plan, our bridge allows an optional entrance ramp from 10th Avenue East. This new entrance, matching the exit to East Roanoke Street, could allow South Lake Union, Eastlake and North Capitol Hill to get direct bus service to and from the Eastside.

Our plan would give Eastside cities like Redmond and Kirkland full access to the light-rail system in Seattle without so much as a traffic light. Buses crossing Lake Washington on Highway 520 could shuttle passengers to the light-rail station near UW and turn around to head back to the Eastside. Service between Seattle and the Eastside could almost double in frequency without a dime of additional funding.

Without the new bridge we propose that makes a direct connection between Highway 520 and light rail, buses from the Eastside would either get stuck crossing the Montlake Bridge or struggle on Interstate 5 and surface streets, unable to use the downtown Seattle transit tunnel, which will eventually be converted to rail-only use.

Our vision would not cost billions more. Bridge technology has vastly improved since the Golden Gate was built 70 years ago.

All over the world, from Sweden to Japan, bridges are getting longer, sleeker and more affordable with carbon-fiber cables and other new technology.

Witness the Millau Viaduct, a cable-stay bridge just opened in southern France designed by Norman Foster. It is the same length as the main bridge we propose, also carries six lanes with shoulders, and was built in less than half the time the state plans for Highway 520. Though it lacks an interchange and was not built in an urban area, the total cost was a relatively low $520 million.

The state's plan is not cheap, estimated at $2.9 billion, in part because it widens the Portage Bay viaduct from four lanes to nine. Our Portage Bay Bridge is a more slender six lanes, matching the bridge across Lake Washington.

The state's plan includes a lid in Montlake; ours does not. The state's plan requires rows of huge columns in muddy soil; ours does not. The state's plan requires the construction of temporary bridges as wide as the current bridges; ours does not.

For all these reasons and more, the cost differential between the state's plan and ours might not be great. To be sure, a new crossing of the Lake Washington Ship Canal would add to the cost. But this is also the key to congestion relief and the key to linking buses and light rail.

A different time

Highway 520 was built in a very different era. Parks and wetlands were considered the best places to put a highway because the land was cheap and the protections few. Downtown Seattle was the only major destination. Bellevue had no skyline and Bill Gates was in grade school.

The state's plan is a much bigger version of a highway that was built for that era.

If we had to build Highway 520 from scratch today — and we essentially do — would we place the interchange for Northeast Seattle and the University of Washington on the wrong side of a narrow historic drawbridge? Would we place express bus stops a third of a mile away from the main light-rail station for Seattle's largest employer? Would we pave a 300-foot-wide swath over waterfront parks and line it with noise-dampening walls that block what views are left?

We've discussed this idea with community and regional leaders, engineers and the state Department of Transportation. We've heard all the expected questions about noise, cost, visual and traffic impacts.

All of these things deserve thorough study as with any big project.

But the next question we usually hear is, "How can we help?"

The state Department of Transportation is full of dedicated, bright people with good intentions, and we share the same goals. But based on certain assumptions we've all made for years, they were forced into studying and proposing a bad solution.

We simply believe we have a better plan. It's a plan that deserves official study, and could be analyzed while we proceed with the new six-lane floating bridge that is common to both solutions.

Our plan solves more problems for more people and is better positioned to get widespread support. It's time to end the gridlock and build great bridges in both the literal and figurative sense.

Adjacent neighborhoods rarely accuse the state Department of Transportation of thinking small on Highway 520. Perhaps the real problem is that it hasn't thought big enough.

Jonathan Dubman is the vice president of the Montlake Community Club, www.montlake.net, and a member of the SR-520 Advisory Committee. Rob Wilkinson is a Montlake resident and an officer of the Montlake Community Club.

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