State tries to pit biking/walking trail against neighbors concerned about 520 views

Though it doesn’t look like it in this photo, the room was packed.

Representatives from the state’s 520 Bridge Replacement project presented at Wednesday’s Bicycle Advisory Board meeting, bravely unrolling a bridge concept map lacking a complete biking and walking path across Portage Bay. I say bravely because the presenters were very aware that the continued lack of said trail was not going to be received well. And it wasn’t.

Let’s rewind for those who have not been following. The state is piecing together a complete replacement of the 520 Bridge from Medina to I-5. The multibillion-dollar project is woefully underfunded, so the state is going piece-by-piece as they can scrounge up funding or loans to make it happen. First was the eastside end, then comes the floating portion across Lake Washington, then the north side of the Montlake portion (including the trail), then the completion of the bridge in Montlake, the bridge over Portage Bay to Delmar and I-5. Though the Seattle part remains unfunded, the state is moving forward with the design and community process so it is ready when those hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars suddenly appear.

The project is currently working through draft designs, and their proposed bridge design includes a 14-foot biking and walking trail (four feet wider than the I-90 Trail) from Medina to the new Montlake lid, which will include access to the Arboretum, the Montlake Bridge (and UW Station at Husky Stadium), the Burke-Gilman Trail, the Lake Washington Loop bike route and the Bill Dawson Trail to Montlake Playfield. WSDOT is looking to build a new paved biking and walking trail through the Arboretum and is looking to widen and improve sightlines on the Bill Dawson Trail under 520 between the new lid and the Montlake Playfield (great news!).

From the Oct 2011 progress report (posted in full below)

The Delmar lid includes a connection to Harvard Ave south of 520 toward Capitol Hill and downtown. A connection to Federal Ave is also on the list of potential options, opening up the possibility for a neighborhood greenway on the popular-though-poorly-paved road.

However, plans are inexplicably missing a biking and walking trail to connect trails in Montlake with trails on this new Delmar lid. Project planners say it is missing because many nearby residents requested that they make the bridge as skinny as possible to avoid casting extra shadows and obstructing views. In essence, WSDOT seems to want to pit people who want biking and walking access on the Portage Bay Bridge against people who are concerned about views.

We must reject this fight entirely. It is a false framework for a debate over the walking and biking path.

It is 2012, not 1960. Building a bridge like this through a neighborhood without biking and walking access is not an option, it is an integral part of the project. The bridge is 115 or so feet wide, and planners say the biking and walking trail would add about 10 feet to that width. I am sure if those ten extra feet are too much, they can find some other ways to find the space, like taking one foot of width off each travel lane (they want 45 mph speeds, anyway, and wide lanes encourage speeding). It’s like packing a suitcase so full of underwear you have no room for your one pair of socks, then saying, “Oops, it’s too full, I guess I’ll go barefoot.” Bad metaphors aside, we’re not asking for a luxury here, we’re asking for basic access.

But that’s WSDOT’s puzzle to solve. The fact they ever came to the public with a design that does not include a biking and walking facility across Portage Bay is insulting. It goes against stated city goals and legislation supporting complete streets, and it goes against the state’s goals of increasing biking and walking while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

And to try to pit residents concerned about views and shadows against people who want biking and walking access is even worse. It’s a potentially community-damaging distraction. They want those neighbors to lose focus and beat up on biking and walking advocates instead. I strongly urge them not to take the bait. Your beef is with WSDOT, not us (and by “us” I mean many of your neighbors who strongly support the trail). Don’t you want you and your neighbors to be able to walk and/or bike across the bridge, too?

Project planners are now looking to the City Council for guidance. I trust the Council will strongly support the biking/walking trail and hope they do not fall into the state’s trap pitting the two desires against each other. Central Seattle Greenways recently submitted a letter with signatures from over 300 community members and organizations suggesting more biking and walking improvements. It’s a great read for background on the issues. Stay tuned for more ways to get involved as the project moves to the Council for advice.

Here’s the full October progress report:

SCD ProgressReport Final

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17 Responses to State tries to pit biking/walking trail against neighbors concerned about 520 views

  1. Alfonso Lopez says:

    Small correction: They said the additional width was 16 feet. Not sure why I felt the need to share that.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      You’re right. But they said they were likely to remove the planned six-foot planted median if they go forward with the bike/walk trail. So I subtracted 6 from 16 to get 10.

      I also like how they were totally ok adding six feet to the width for a planted median, but 16 feet for biking and walking access is too much…

      • Gordon Padelford says:

        My notes from the meeting at that for a 14ft trail, only 4 of that can come from the 6 ft planted median (I guess they need 2 feet for a concrete median), meaning it still needs 10 feet.

  2. merlin says:

    Great post, Tom!
    The presenters mentioned the difficulty of forecasting demand for a facility that doesn’t exist yet (the bike-ped connection over Portage Bay), but did not mention the challenge of forecasting automobile demand. Sightline has written several posts about WashDOT’s vast overestimates of growth in automobile miles traveled, despite a trend over the past 10 years for traffic volumes to decrease ( The 520 bridge expansion is based on these inflated projections. I didn’t see any figures about the existing width of the bridge and how much of the 115 foot width of the new bridge has been added to accommodate this supposed demand.

    I am quite sure that a bike link directly from Bellevue to South Lake Union would entice a huge number of Amazonians, PATHians and Gates Foundationites to ride bikes. As bad as biking is now in South Lake Union, the bike racks around the office buildings there are always full – and there’s secure bike parking for employees in the garages too. WashDOT needs to enter the present century.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      To use WSDOT’s same linear regression model they use for automobile demand, let’s see… biking has grown by more than 20% year over year, so we can just assume it will always grow 20%… Someone do the math. How many years until we are near 50% of the King County population?

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        I just did some quick math. Using WSDOT’s traffic growth analysis methods, the entire population of Seattle will be biking within 17 years. Wow! I can’t wait.

        I should specify that I am not a mathematician and probably made a mistake in there somewhere.

  3. Jon Korneliussen says:

    Tom, that is rock solid logic. You could work for WSDOT!

    What I can’t shake, though, is the thought that we’d be better served by investing in corridor improvements along parallel streets, rather than a limited-access highway trail. More access, more utility. Said improvements should be integral to the project scope and should provide a convinient connection to the main span trail.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      I say we need both. There really are no parallel routes. “Alternatives” that exist include riding on sometimes unfriendly roads with steep grades. I agree these should be improved (I would love a proper bike facility on Boyer!), but I don’t see that as an alternative to this direct link. That work would, however, provide better access to the homes along the way, which is a worthy project on its own.

      • Clint says:

        I agree. Bike infrastructure needs to create OPTIONS for bikers, not just one designated route. Just like a motorist being able to choose between the interstate or surface streets depending on the destination, number of stops along the wat, etc. We need a trail along 520, and local street improvements in that area too. Cyclists would use them for different purposes.

        Plus a transportation project of this size and scope just needs to include a bikeway. Period. It needs to help build a sustainable transportation system for the next 50 years, not a continuation of the antiquated system of the last 50. This should be an imperative, not a debate.

      • Al Dimond says:

        Yeah, it’s great to have options. But in a choice between a local route with access to intermediate homes and businesses and a freeway bypass, the local route is the most important, most basic thing. And since the potential of biking is greatest for short trips, a bypass that’s miles long with no stops just has limited utility.

        Maybe we should build this just because we won’t have another chance to do it for a long time. But if WSDOT pitched in for real improvements on the parallel surface routes instead (to the base of the U Bridge, to Cap Hill, on to downtown) that would be even better.

  4. Pingback: North Capitol Hill Neighborhood Association opposes 520 Portage Bay Bridge multi-use path | montlaker

  5. Clint says:

    “Maybe we should build this just because we won’t have another chance to do it for a long time.” I think that’s exactly it for me… these massive infrastructure projects come along once in a generation at best. So I think we collectively need to sieze this opportunity to be forward looking and do it right.

    Maybe we can leverage some surface street improvements too!

  6. Al Dimond says:

    The recent STB post reminds me of this other thing: a bike path on the Portage Bay Bridge isn’t the most important part of the 520 project for cycling by a long shot. The most important part is what happens with the Montlake Bridge.

  7. fred says:

    So, WSDOT is caving to the special interests of a few hundred people? Not including a bike lane across Portage Bay will impact tens of thousands of people for 50-100 years. In the 21st century, all large, expensive transportation infrastructure projects must accommodate as many modes of transportation as possible.

  8. Pingback: City Council committee talks 520 Bridge design | Seattle Bike Blog

  9. pete.d says:

    Stumbled across this article looking for info about who maintains the 520 bike path (from Northup in Bellevue to W Lake Samm./Leary in Redmond), and found some excellent points and discussion. Nice job!

    I would add: there’s plenty of precedent around the nation for bridges (motor vehicle, bike/ped, or combined) that aren’t eyesores. Yes, the claim about views is a red herring (I doubt any neighbors told DOT they were fine with the bridge if only they’d get rid of the bike lane), but the installation of an attractive bridge can actually improve views, by adding visual interest, rather than by detracting from what was there before.

    (Yeah, yeah…I ought to be telling the DOT, not posting here…but I’m not actively involved in the actual neighborhood discussion, nor really have any good reason to be. Just thought I’d share my thoughts at the moment :) ).

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