28 December, 2010

Seattle 520 bridge construction promises more bad transit decisions

For years, they've been talking about "fixing" the situation with SR-520, the "highway" that serves as one of the two commute paths across Lake Washington, connecting the Eastside to Seattle. Every time it appears in the news, I imagine the horror that is going to occur when that road goes under construction. But it fades from the news, and I forget for a little while.

This week, I was reminded once again that the tolls (Phase 1 of the insanity that will ensue) will commence in a few months. Even though major construction will not start for some time after that, the tolling is going to immediately disrupt the tenuous excuse for an "equilibrium" that currently keeps traffic at a manageable level. After much debate and deliberation, it appears that they have decided to only put a toll on SR-520 itself, and not charge drivers who go across I-90, located a few miles south. Makes sense, right? We should only make those who use the road pay for its improvement.

I'm hoping that you can detect the sarcasm in that assertion.

Apparently, those who make the decisions about such things must prefer checkers over chess, because they're clearly not in the business of thinking more than one step ahead. It does not require a doctorate in statistical analysis or civil engineering, or even a college education to know that if you only tax (I mean, toll) one of the two bridges across the lake, it will result in a percentage of traffic diverting to the other bridge to avoid the toll. On the surface (again, only one move ahead) you might think this is a good thing, because SR-520 traffic tends to be a bit worse on a daily basis than I-90. Fair, right? But if that flux of cars avoiding SR-520 is great enough, it will lead to a traffic nightmare on I-90. There are already issues with that road due to its lane arrangement, with frequent backups passing through Mercer Island, even when traffic would otherwise be moderate or light. If you throw 20% more load into that system, it is probably going to break. Similarly, the I-90/I-405 interchange is extremely poorly designed, with on-ramp and off-ramp positions too close together, resulting in unnecessary backups every day, even in light traffic, just trying to sort out the cars who are getting on the highway from those getting off the highway. If you add 20% more traffic, it will have a dramatic impact on those bottlenecks first.

I'm not even considering the fact that the construction itself (as it always does) will cause rubber-necking pandemonium on SR-520, likely nullifying the hypothesized speed-up of traffic due to imposing of tolls. In fact, maybe they are thinking 2 moves ahead. Maybe they know that SR-520 is going to be nuts, and they're trying to dump traffic onto I-90 just to keep things balanced. But if that's the case, they should not be touting expected increases in travel speed by imposing tolls. They should come out and say "For 2 years, it's going to be the worst imaginable nightmare. We know it. And the only thing we can do is try to distribute it evenly, so we're putting a toll on SR-520 to get the cars off that road." At least that would demonstrate some integrity. But politicians who make decisions don't like to make unpopular statements. They'd rather live now and pay later. One thing politicians are good are is apologizing and informing the public that said circumstances were unforeseen.

The last part of my rant relates to the utter selfishness of the whining residents of Mercer Island who, in their aloof upper-middle-class land of delusion, are under the impression that they should be protected from the ills of infrastructure improvement, unless it directly benefits them. These folks are insisting that tolling I-90 is unfair and will disrupt businesses, and unfairly tax them, and potentially impact their school system by making it difficult for their teachers to get to and from work. Seriously? I'll bet that if we look at the median income of a Mercer Island resident, and the number of hours per week that the average Mercer Island resident spends working and/or commuting, as compared to a Seattle resident, we'll see that a) they can afford to pay a toll, and b) they can afford to cover the cost of their teachers' tolls and give them a pay raise to compensate their inconvenience, and c) they can afford to spend a little more time sitting in traffic (which they'll do if we don't put a toll on I-90, for sure). If they want idyllic island life, without confronting the reality of being within a stone's throw of a major metropolitan area, let them pack their bags, load up their Lexus SUVs, and move to Whidbey Island.

A final note about the entire project. Apparently, the city has not yet settled on how they're going to finish the project. They haven't completely sorted out where the money will come from. And they haven't sorted out what the design will actually be for the section of SR-520 that connects Montlake to I-5. This is a rather shocking detail, considering that it involves major complicated connections, with political pressure from neighborhoods about where there should or should not be on-ramps. Beginning to replace the bridge across the lake without a plan for connecting up to I-5 is like launching the Space Shuttle without equipping it with the appropriate shielding for reentering the atmosphere.

Well, it's not exactly like that. But I'm at a loss for a suitable metaphor.

1 comment:

  1. this is a really intelligent analysis. You should send chunks of this to the local government.