The final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the 520 bridge project is completed. Here at TCC we are working through the very lengthy document, and have some preliminary thoughts about transit and the final EIS. Transportation Choices Coalition has a long history with this project; we served on the Trans-Lake Corridor Study Committee in the late 90s on through to the mediation process in 2008.
The EIS presents the preferred alternative - a six lane corridor from I-5 to Medina that includes two general-purpose lanes and one transit/HOV lane in each direction. The option includes 1,400-foot-long Montlake lid with bicycle and pedestrian paths that connect the Arboretum, the Bill Dawson Trail and McCurdy Park, and a second Bascule Bridge across the Montlake Cut. The option preserves a space between the west approach bridge structures that could accommodate potential future light rail to connect to the University Link light rail station. The preferred alternative has a 14-foot-wide bicycle/pedestrian path across Lake Washington and a stormwater treatment facility.
Throughout the development of SR 520 plans, we have consistently focused on the need for a robust transit mitigation plan for the construction phase followed by a funded transit plan for the corridor once the bridge becomes operational. A fully funded transit plan is reliant on flexible use of tolling revenue to fund transit and other alternatives to driving across the bridge. We have also advocated for variable tolling to manage congestion on the corridor. Here are some preliminary thoughts about transit interests in the final EIS.
1. Transit mitigation plan for the construction phase
The final EIS did not alleviate our ongoing concerns that a plan for transit mitigation is not complete and not addressed in the EIS. The EIS responds to our request for a transit mitigation plan and funding, in saying, “This [transit mitigation] will be part of the overall construction traffic management plan that will be developed in conjunction with more detailed construction plans.” We are eager to see these plans and ensure that a robust and funded mitigation plan will be implemented.
2. Funded transit plan for the corridor which includes flexible use of tolling revenue to fund transit and other alternatives to driving across the bridge
We are pleased that the preferred alternative will include 3+HOV lanes. These lanes will accommodate both transit and carpools, and will help the expected 500-600 buses that will run across the bridge each weekday, operate at consistent speeds and reliability. Yet, we still have concerns that funding for the transit plan is not adequately addressed in the EIS. With the imposition of tolls and more predictable travel times on the corridor, transit usage will increase dramatically. We think that tolling revenue is an obvious source to fund adequate transit service and transit mitigation.
Currently flexible tolls that would allow toll revenue to be used for transit operations are not authorized by the legislature for this project. In response to our comments in the supplemental EIS, WSDOT states, “Redirecting tolling revenue to support transit service would require legislative changes that are unlikely in the foreseeable future.”
There is some money for transit on 520 that has been authorized. New transit facilities were funded through the federal Urban Partnership Agreement, and operating funds are being collected through property tax authorization, but more money is needed to fully implement the plan and ensure that reliable and affordable transit options are available to address economic justice concerns that come with high bridge tolls.
It is concerning that there is still no clarification where funding for the additional transit service will come. Given the current financial crisis of King County Metro and Sound Transit, increased funding for planned transit service is necessary, and if funding for this service cannot come from toll revenue, where will this increased funding come from in this time while transit agencies budgets are severely hurting? WDSOT points out that increased transit is planned, funded or implemented through the King County Metro’s Transit Now! Program, but this program is currently not bringing in the revenue that it expected because of the dip in sales tax. The state leadership must step up to ensure that the increased transit service planned for the preferred alternative can become a reality.
Furthermore, the final EIS states that because of new investments in transit services across SR 520 and rideshare and vanpool options fewer low-income populations would be adversely affected by the toll than previously assumed, because there are now more affordable alternatives to paying the toll. According to guidance that WSDOT received from FWHA, this minimizes the effect of the toll on low-income populations, coupled with the fact that everyone will benefit from a safer bridge. The analysts concluded that there would be no disproportionately high and adverse effect as a result of the toll, and therefore no mitigation is proposed. The problem with this finding is that it relies on full funding for the transit plan.
3. Variable tolling to manage congestion on the corridor
We have continually advocated for variable tolling for the 520 bridge and this option is at risk and may be prohibited if Tim Eyman gets his way. Eyman has filed an anti-tolling initiative (I-1125) and is colleting signatures for a full vote of the people in November. I-1125, backed by Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, attempts to accomplish many things. It would require that the legislature sets tolls, not the Washington Transportation Commission, and any changes to the tolling would have to occur through the political process. It would prevent light rail across I-90, by pushing a section that requires that transportation taxes and tolls only go toward highway building purposes, and it would end variable-price tolling. If this measure goes to the voters, and if it passes, it will severely hamstring the ability to raise revenue to build the replacement and control congestion on the corridor. Everyone will be watching closely to see if this will go to a vote of the people in November. If this passes, our concerns about transit and 520 will grow deeper and more urgent for deliberate action to ensure that transit is fully funded through this transition and on the new 520 bridge.