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Seattle can’t stripe the lanes on the Highway 520 bridge

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Feb. 6, 2010 at 4:27 pm |
February 5, 2010 4:30 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Why is it so hard to make a big transportation plan stick in Seattle?

The city’s years of arguments over replacing the Alaskan Way viaduct seem settled – keep your fingers crossed. But Seattle officials are suddenly pushing to reopen the plan, already enacted in law, to replace the Highway 520 bridge over Lake Washington. This after more than 10 years of studies and negotiation produced the existing agreement for a six-lane bridge, with two general-purpose lanes plus one HOV lane running in each direction.

Too many cars, say Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, the Seattle City Council and various greener-than-thou types. They want the Legislature to shift course and turn the two HOV lanes into mass transit-only lanes (meaning just buses, for the foreseeable future).

The state – meaning taxpayers from Tacoma to Spokane – would wind up paying billions of dollars and getting only four automobile lanes, no more than on the old Evergreen Point floating bridge.

Whatever McGinn and the others may think, this isn’t Seattle’s call to make. The bridge carries a state highway – repeat, state highway – not a city arterial. Its configuration is every bit as important to Bellevue, Redmond and other cities on the east side of the lake as it is to Seattle. Many in those communities were originally seeking an eight-lane bridge to accommodate more automobile traffic, which routinely slows to a tortoise-paced crawl during rush hour.

Six automobile lanes is the compromise between the Eastside, with its car-dependent low-density neighborhoods and Seattle, where commuters in heavily populated districts have much easier access to mass transit.

There is a way to split the difference between buses and solo commuters. It’s called the HOV lane. On congested routes, HOV lanes create a powerful incentive to commute by car pool, a far greener alternative to the single-occupant vehicle.

But wait – this crucial incentive for carpooling is exactly what would be eliminated under the new Seattle scheme.

The notion of getting rid of the bridge’s HOV lanes is driven by an almost fanatic hostility to automobiles prevalent among some Seattleites. It’s the mirror image of the equally foolish antipathy to rail transit that’s motivating some on the Eastside to fight plans to build light rail through downtown Bellevue.

You wonder if the auto-haters are paying attention. Car manufacturers are falling all over themselves to abandon the internal combustion engine; the cars of the future will run on electricity or other alternatives and will be far greener than today’s vehicles. The automobile is a long way from extinction.

Seattle’s kill-the-HOV scheme won’t go anywhere without approval from the Legislature. Good luck on that one: The peculiar passions that produce ideas like this aren’t common outside the 206 area code.

What McGinn and his confederates will succeed at is annoying people. We hope that irritating the rest of the state doesn’t become a dominant theme of the new mayor’s administration.

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