Tuesday, February 14, 2012

August 2012

August 2012: Lawsuit lost, efforts renewed
A message to our supporters:
Judge Ricardo has ruled in favor of WSDOT.  He pretty much dismissed our claims.  We lost.

We lost that lawsuit, but the cause is still worth our efforts.  We are working to prevent huge harm to our communities and to the waterways and shorelines which attracted us here and which support so many outdoor activities.   We are working to have neighborhoods where everyone can walk without danger and breathe without more pollutants, and can navigate local traffic without constant congestion. We are working to prevent the state from squandering money on an expansion which will only move the traffic jams.  

The support from the communities has been fantastic.  Literally hundreds of people have given money and time to get us this far.  Huge thank-you’s to each of you! We will need your continuing support to counteract the falsehoods and foolishness that are coming at us.

520 is still far from a done deal, and the state is changing what was presented to us.  The state still has no way to get the $2 billion necessary to build the west side.  We expect the state to announce shortly that they have received a stimulus grant to do the Lake to Land project…putting through more lanes into Montlake without planning for local traffic, without the lid and without mitigation.  This is very different from the plan described in the environmental documents.   Putting the Portage Bay bridge north of its current location is also a big change from what was disclosed.  So we have urgent issues to work on.    

Back to the federal lawsuit: you can find the judge’s decision here.  I am personally surprised by it.  It puts great weight on the number of documents and the number of pages which WSDOT submitted.   It repeats WSDOT’s arguments at length.  And it does not address our claims except in a few dismissive sentences.   It’s a disappointing document. 
We now have to decide whether to appeal that ruling to the 9th circuit.  I’d be interested in your thoughts… and if we appeal, we will need considerably more money.   We will also need to oppose changes which make the 520 plans even worse.   So we will continue to be in touch!

Fran Conley

July 2012: Legal briefs are exchanged
The process used for the Coalition's federal lawsuit is several exchanges of briefs, then oral arguments in front of the judge on July 10, then the judge's decision.  The facts are derived from the written record, with no experts or verbal testimony.  Here are the briefs so far; just click on them to read them. 

Here we outline the ways in which WSDOT and FHWA violated federal 
and state law, and ask the judge to stop the project.  
Here WSDOT outlines the process it has gone through,
 and maintains that it was adequate. 
Here the FHWA outlines the process and says why it thinks it was adequate. 

Coalition's Reply Brief, June 16 
 Here we go into more detail on ways in which WSDOT and FHWA 
ignored the law, misinstrepreted data, and and went through formalities without the required intent to assess alternatives.  

WSDOT's reply brief, June 26
Here WSDOT denies our assertions. 

FHWA reply brief, June 26
Here the FHWA rebuts our assertions. 

Here we show why the agencies did not prove that a transit-optimized 4 lanes would not work.

June: WSDOT continues to show major changes to the designs

 WSDOT is getting more public about its intent to force 6 lanes through to Montlake, with no lids, no noise mitigation, and no traffic mitigation. See below "April: WSDOT changes plans" and the Seattle Times article here 

We believe that this big change should receive full public discussion, but we have not seen any drawings that show relevant specifics, like how traffic will get from 520 to Montlake Blvd. and to Madison Park. 

WSDOT is also showing totally different types of bridge over Portage Bay.  See here

April 23: our opening brief is filed
 A major milestone for the coalition, made possible by all our supporters: on April 23, we filed our opening brief in the federal lawsuit.  This is the basis for the hearing in Judge Martinez' court on July 10.   Now that this brief is filed, we await responses from WSDOT and from FHWA.  These responses will be filed in mid May.  After that, there is another exchange of briefs, and then the hearing.  The judge has discretion on how soon after the hearing he will make his decision. 

The opening brief is very readable, and you can see it here. It points out that federal and state laws require the agencies to evaluate reasonable alternatives, and that this was not done... for instance, adequate review was not done on a tolled, transit-optimized 4 lanes.  It points out that federal and state law require avoidance of taking public land, and that adequate analysis of alternatives to taking our beautiful waterways and natural areas was not done.  It points out that the state did not do a cost-benefit analysis that is required by state law and that is supposed to inform the decision-makers.  It points out that the state did not analyze air quality hot spots such as the proposed Montlake lid, where hundreds of buses and carpools will exhaust their fumes every day.  It points out that there is no analysis of the conflict between building this additional capacity, and the state's law specifying reduction of greenhouse gases. 

And much more...it's worth reading.  Here's one excerpt: "Various federal and state laws require careful considerations before agencies decide to spend taxpayer money on expensive projects.  These laws generally seek to assure that the agencies approach their decision with minds open to more than pre-conceived proposals... Too often, the extensive and expensive studies commissioned to analyze options end up being so many pages of documentation justifying a previously developed proposal."  

Separately, the coalition has filed an appeal to the Shoreline Hearings Board.  We are saying that the proposed bridge is higher than allowed, and would require a variance... that the state must follow the same process that anyone else would follow.  WSDOT has asked for summary judgment on this. Our response to that request is also worth reading, and you can see it  here.

 April: WSDOT changes plans
WSDOT now wants to make some big changes in its plans!  Here we clarify the differences between what WSDOT's final environmental documents said they planned for Montlake, and their new, unpublished plan.  I'll call the first plan the "EIS" because it is in the environmental impact statements.  I'll call the second plan " Lake to Land" because that is what WSDOT calls it.  (They also call it WABN)

WSDOT is still showing us the EIS plan, but they are planning on building the Lake to Land plan. They have strong indications that they will be given a federal stimulus loan for about $300 million to do the Lake to Land.  Paula Hammond confirmed to the Seattle Times recently that they plan Lake to Land.  Our legislators from the 43rd district fought the Lake to Land, but only gained assurance that it will not be constructed until June 2014.

In theory, either the EIS plan or the L to L plan is temporary, and eventually the state will come up with more than $2.5 billion to finish the project.  In practice, the state has no foreseeable way to get the $2 billion for at least 10 years, so we will be left with the partial project for at least that long.

So a key difference is that the EIS says that the whole project will be done  by 2017.  The Lake to Lands project is a tacit admission that the rest of the project will not be done for a long time, if ever.  This means that between the highrise and Montlake the eastbound lanes will remain at their current, low level.  The westbound lanes will be much higher, so there will be low bridge beside a high one, blocking views and water access.  

The L to L project appears to do nothing at all west of Montlake Blvd.

Another key difference is that the EIS plan has required mitigation: quiet pavement, sound deadening, the lids at Montlake  and at 10th and Delmar, removal of the ramps to nowhere, etc., and the L to L plan does not appear to contain any of these.   This is a HUGE concern for all who use the area or live in it. 

The EIS plan has plans for bike and pedestrian mobility.  The L to L plan does bring the bike/ped path from the bridge into Montlake, but we haven't seen any plans for what happens then.  There is no current plan to connect that path with anything.

The EIS plan says that the state will build a "west transition bridge" and then run out of money.   The west transition bridge goes from the highrise to near Foster Island, and it is where the 6 lanes would merge back into 4 lanes.   The Lake to Land plan continues the extra lanes west to Montlake Bloulevard.   There all the traffic gets dumped,  without any measures to take care of it.  It could be extremely expensive to re-do this configuration into a Montlake interchange in years to come.

The EIS plan adds offramps and other lanes between Foster Island and Montlake, covering much of the water and impacting the wildlife as well as the experience of nature.  It looks as though the L to L plan is a bit worse, even, than the EIS plan.

The EIS plan uses 24th above the freeway to enable cars to get to and from Madison Park and points south.  The L to L plan is unclear; all the traffic may have to go into Montlake Blvd, or the on-bound east ramp may continue.  Still being developed...  but a critical issue!

The EIS plan removes the ramps to nowhere.  The L to L plan seems not to do so.

Because the L to L plan is a desperate attempt to get the extra lanes into Montlake and needs to be done on a very strict budget, there will be a strong tendency to leave out all the mitigation we have been promised.  We need to get this plan out in the open, and fleshed out, and insist that WSDOT adhere to what we have been promised all along.  We should get ALL the offsets and mitigations that were in the EIS... and others that will make the area livable.

And we should not be asked to waste our time commenting on a plan that WSDOT does not plan to implement.

Here is WSDOT's image of the Lake to Land proposal.

March 10: What just happened in Olympia? 
In recent days, WSDOT has launched a new assault against our objective of getting a 520 solution that does less harm to the area.  For the sake of simplicity, references here to "WSDOT " include a few legislators close to WSDOT, and the governor, who is also determined to expand SR 520 without appropriate care for the environment and the communities.   Their latest attack has been three pronged.
1) WSDOT has pressured the City of Seattle to exempt the 520 expansion and other "essential public facilities" projects from the city's normal permitting safeguards and procedures.  Our neighbors are challenging this in a proceeding pending before a city hearing examiner.

2) WSDOT tried to exempt the 520 expansion from a portion of the shoreline management act. This portion normally prohibits construction work until appeals challenging the project's shoreline permits are decided. (We have such an appeal on file.)  Despite strong opposition from our representatives and the environmental community, WSDOT did obtain a partial exemption.  Fortunately, the exemption granted allows only work that can be used for either a four- or a six-lane solution.  This language demonstrates that the decision makers in Olympia recognize that a four-lane project is still a realistic option.

3) WSDOT tried to get funding for a new 520 plan, one not disclosed in the final environmental documents.  This new plan extends construction all the way to Montlake with
no  lids- a proposal as bad as any design could be:
- It thrusts many more lanes into Montlake, with no new interchange, dumping all the traffic onto local streets with no offsets;

- It adds lanes covering much of the water near the Arboretum, permanently ruining a much-used, unique in-city natural area.

- It puts a larger, wider "west transition"bridge offshore of Madison Park
and leaves the old bridge, so that people living or boating nearby will see a wall of bridges.
Here is WSDOT's image of this proposal. Double click on it to make it larger and see details...

In response to the above plan, legislative representatives Jamie Pedersen and Frank Chopp answered our call for help.  Meanwhile, WSDOT rallied the Chamber of Commerce and other business interests, and the unions, to position the plan's acceptance as a jobs issue.  These groups roused their members with bulletins that were not very accurate, for instance claiming that without this plan existing pontoon jobs would be lost.  And some legislators refused to vote on the general budget unless the 520 bill was passed.

Where are we now?

- The 520 projected is exempted, as described above, from the Shoreline Management Act's automatic injunction, but only for work that can be used for either a four-or-six lane project. WSDOT's request to exempt 520 from Seattle's normal permitting safeguards is being challenged before a city hearing examiner.

- New legislation states that until June 30, 2014, WSDOT may not build west of the shortest possible connection between the new floating bridge and the old bridge and can't contract for the approach to Montlake shown in the image above.  It is likely, however, that WSDOT will say that the west approach (the right side of the image) can be built.

- Also until June 30, 2014, WSDOT may not contract for the approach to Montlake unless the legislature has authorized tolls on I-90 and/or other funding sufficient to complete 520 with mitigation all the way to I-5.

The danger of an immediately worse 520 result has been avoided at least in part.  But longer term all our problems are still there.  You can see why expert action in the courts, independent of the political brawl, is so necessary.
March 2: Recent Progress: Lawsuit and design
Your backing has enabled us to file the lawsuit in Federal Court. Our hearing is scheduled for July 13 in the court of Judge Ricardo Martinez.  Our amended complaint, which you can read here, asserts that the state violated that National and State Environmental Protection laws, the Clean Air Act, the state law requiring reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and the state law requiring a cost-benefit analysis of project like this one.    

We have already won some design concessions. And already the State has promised to limit any 520 construction before the hearing to work that could accommodate either its current six-lane plan or an alternative four-lane 520 design.

But unless it is forced to further revise its current design, the State will begin building its six-lane, double-deck bridge from the east across Lake Washington later this year. Amazing—because before the project reaches the Seattle shoreline, it will run out of money! (The State expects no additional 520 funding for the next ten years.) We will be left with six lanes merging into today’s four lanes just off-shore of Madison Park, well before west-bound vehicles will have the chance to exit. Meanwhile, the concrete pillars supporting today’s 520 through Seattle will remain, still vulnerable to earthquake.  

Here is an overview of the plan.  On the right side, 6 lanes are high and massive.  Then  a "transition bridge" swoops down from the highrise to today's bridge, which will remain in place until the state finds another $2 billion.  That $2 billion is not in the state's 10 year plan.  Tourists, boaters, and residents will find their views blocked by two bridges, one higher than the other. 

The west transition bridge will be much higher and bulkier than the current bridge.  Here is a WSDOT diagram of the old and new bridges at a point near Madison Park. 

It will probably be many years before the state finds money to go from the transition bridge to I-5, so for those many years people will be looking at two bridges: the old, lower structure and the new massive "transition" bridge.

If somehow the State were to find the additional $2 billion it needs to build the road it currently plans through Seattle, the results will be even worse: permanent harm to our communities, our bays and wetlands and our ability to get around our city. The green tab above "What is the Plan for 520" shows a few of the gruesome details. 

Our best hope of stopping the ill-conceived State plan depends on your further support.

Why waste all this money?

Washington state is short of funds for basic services, and for basic maintenance of highways.  For instance, there is no plan to re-surface I-5, which is an urgent need and which is expected to cost several billion.
This monster 520 project is not needed. Now that tolls have been imposed on the floating bridge, it's obvious that the current four lanes will be adequate for many years.  This is confirmed by an independent study which you can read here , where the Wilbur Smith Associates firm says that it may take 20 years to re-build traffic to its former levels.

Why not simply fix the safety problems?  You can read the coalition's ideas and see the initial cost estimates here. Our economists estimate that simply fixing the safety problems could save the state $2,000,000,000 to $3,000,00,000.  

When the state has money, a less-harmful 6 lanes can be built. Here you can read the Coalition's proposal for such a bridge.
Other recent activity

 After the State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) asked for shoreline permits for the whole project, even though the west side is only 5% designed, we worked with the city. City officials walked the shoreline with us, and we are pleased that we obtained assurances that if the Seattle side is built, we will get specific local mitigations, designed to keep the shorelines and bays as healthy as possible.    We are also pleased that the city won the right to review the plans for the west side when they are nearing completion, and that any changes then demanded by the city will be paid by WSDOT.

WSDOT is now working to exempt the 520 floating bridge project from the requirements of the shoreline management act!  This is a terrible precedent.  Even though WSDOT says it will not build anything that would preclude a 4 lane solution, exempting any project from basic shoreline regulations is a terrible idea.

We learned also that WSDOT is behind a recent effort to change the city's requirements for siting Essential Public Facilities -- including 520 -- to eliminate citizen protections.  Several communities are working to prevent this change.   

It is sad to think that a state agency simply tries to change laws if it feels inconvenienced.