Lawmaker panel sets stage for state to finalize 520 plans

A group of state lawmakers on Monday released its final design and financing recommendations for the renovation of western SR-520, hoping to give legislators a sense of direction heading into the 2010 session.

The state Department of Transportation is developing plans for a makeover of the entire 520 corridor expected to cost between $4.4 billion and $4.5 billion.

Separate phases will take place for the eastern and western portions of the highway, with work on the west side including an expansion of the roadway to six lanes and replacement of the floating bridge.

Work on the eastern segment will focus primarily on creating continuous HOV lanes from Medina to SR-202 and adding a direct-access interchange for transit and HOV at 108th Ave. NE.

Costs are estimated at $776 million for the Eastside and $3.8 billion for the west side.

State gas taxes, federal grants, and tolls will cover $2 billion or more of the overall price tag.

The legislative workgroup in its report recommended covering that amount by: tolling the existing 520 bridge beginning Spring 2011, charging solo drivers to use express lanes on the I-90 bridge, and applying for federal and state grants.

The panel also proposed tolling the entire I-90 bridge in the event that those measures do not produce the necessary funds.

The workgroup's report endorses a western 520 bridge-replacement model known as Option A+, which includes a six-lane highway, a wider Montlake interchange, and a second Montlake drawbridge.

The legislative panel, which includes Sen. Rodney Tom and Rep. Ross Hunter from the Eastside, voted 9-3 to endorse that plan.

Opposing members cited concerns about lack of mitigation for the impacts to communities – including road congestion and property takings – and doubts about whether transit could move efficiently to the University of Washington light-rail station with a new drawbridge blocking traffic intermittently.

Supporters say they like the plan because it meets the budget and timeline while running little risk of hitting permitting snags.

King County Metro Transit gave its blessing to the Option A+ plan despite the concerns about traffic impacts from the drawbridge.

Debate over designs for the west portion of 520 has continued for over a decade, and many lawmakers in the legislative workgroup say they are ready to move on.

"I just want to make sure we can take advantage of the best bidding and interest-rate environment we've had in generation," Hunter said.

But approval from the state may be hard to come by with House Speaker Frank Chopp of Seattle opposing both the financing and design plan.

"Some of that is to Frank's credit because his constituents have strong feelings about this, but lawmakers need to do what is best for the state and the region," Tom said. "We very much need a functioning 520 corridor."

Hunter said he hopes legislators will "at a bare minimum" approve funding for the Eastside 520 projects during the upcoming session in Olympia. WSDOT could begin construction on that phase later this year if money is available.

A supplemental draft environmental impact statement for the western 520 renovation plan is expected from WSDOT within the next several weeks, according to agency spokesman Jeff Switzer.

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