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Judge dismisses coalition’s 520 lawsuit

U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez, who, before vilification begins, it must be noted kept the Sonics lease-breaking argument out of arbitrationdismissed yesterday a lawsuit brought against Washington State’s construction of a new SR 520 bridge. The lawsuit claimed that Washington’s Department of Transportation hadn’t conducted adequate review of alternatives before settling on a 6-lane expansion of the floating part of the bridge (growing to 12 lanes, counting on- and off-ramps, at Montlake).

“Our analysis was thorough and exhaustive, and we hope that the ruling by Judge Martinez puts an end to the debate about mobility improvements to this vital corridor,” said state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond. With the court’s decision, WSDOT can continue with construction of SR 520 improvements as planned and funded.

Small caveat: all the SR 520 improvements aren’t funded. The state is still searching for more than $2 billion of the $4.65-billion project, so that the floating bridge portion can connect to Montlake. So, financially at least, a huge caveat.

The verdict was not particularly surprising: WSDOT has been aggressive with its timeline for the bridge construction, which has the effect of creating a sunk investment if the project is delayed or halted. Opponents of the bridge’s expansion have haddifficulty bending any “ears of power.” In this economic climate, few are interested in taking the political hit sinking the mega-bridge would require. Besides, beyond the hundreds of millions of dollars already spent, many voters still believe extra lanes necessarily equal improvements in traffic flow.


Artist rendition of the future 520 (Image: WSDOT)

Still, this is a sobering finding for anyone who thinks that an environmental impact review would lead to outcomes that impact the environment less. The Coalition for a Sustainable 520 had plenty of arguments to make on that score (the Montlaker blog summarizes a few of them for you), not least the much-remarked-upon improvement in traffic flow that has come from tolling the existing 4-lane bridge, and the mostly-ignored requirement to define how an expansion would fit with state’s goals to reduce greenhouse gases.

In Judge Martinez’s view, the option of a tolled, 4-lane, “transit-optimized” bridge deserved consideration didn’t come into the question of “improving the mobility of people and goods across Lake Washington in the SR 520 corridor.” (Here is where Sightline’s now-29-part series on the decade-long plateau (and actual decline) in traffic volumes around the state makes good reading.) Thus, the final environmental impact statement could compare WSDOT’s 6-lane preferred alternative to doing nothing at all–and nothing else–and still present the “reasonable alternatives.”

The conclusion, that there are no reasonable alternatives to the preferred alternative, has a strikingly Politburo-esque tone. As does the rationale used to eliminate the tolled 4-lane option: The toll cost would impact the poor, and divert traffic to I-90. (WSDOT argues that it is fine to do both of these things if you are funding a megaproject.) Sound reasonable?

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3 thoughts on “Judge dismisses coalition’s 520 lawsuit

  1. There is no question that there was ample study of this project, some 200 million, IIRC. This stands in curious contrast to the conspicuously absent process for the Alaskan Way Viaduct – one project too hot, one project too cold and both definitely the product of, when it comes to mega-projects, a dysfunctional agency.

    The blame for this lies not in the hands of the engineers, but on the careers of the politicians, and the political machine of environmental review. I most clearly recall Christine Gregoire announcing the 520 design being a done deal following shortly on the Gates/Ellis (now KL Gates) toadie, Microsoft announcing their corporate support for the preferred alternative. Not so obvious was Preston Gates quieter PR campaign in support of Citizen’s United, of which we can take this project as a substantive example.

    I’m a fan of Martinez, his quality is sorely missing from his previous Court, KC Superior, but this decision is wrong. Consider, for example that the alternative preferred by Montlake was never evaluated on an apples to apples basis, the community alternative having a number of non-related items adding to its budget. Though a non-fraudulent cost comparison was never done it is completely within reason that the additional cost would have been less than the cost of the EIS – a process and document which, in the context of other State and Local developments in the expenditures of public money, is clearly nothing more than a very long winded effort to undermine our democracy.

    The Montlake criticism of this project has been smart and constructive from day one. This project is not too big too fail, it is a failure. No, strike that, it is an ‘F-in’ failure.

    Postscript: Consider also the Kemper Freeman Supreme Court appeal on the I-90 bridge. On an engineering basis alone 520 should’ve been the bridge for Light Rail (as I recall it has been designed for that future conversion), the I-90 conversion is not, removing a pull over lane and narrowing the remaining in order to make room. This alone is an obvious engineering problem, the question of loads on the bridge a bit more complex, the only thing clear in the early engineering studies is the opportunity for some planned cost overruns.