A City, a Campus and 115,000 Cars

U. of Washington finds itself in the middle of a transportation debate that involves some of its most prized turf.
March 29, 2007

Seattle has a big transportation problem. The city is separated from its ever-growing eastern suburbs by 23-mile-long Lake Washington, traversed by two floating bridges. One of them, four-lane State Route 520, is choked by traffic -- 115,000 cars per day -- for an increasing portion of the workweek. It is 43 years old, and vulnerable to earthquakes and high winds. 

For years, government officials, city planners, activists and environmentalists have debated bridge  expansion and replacement plans.

Washington State's transportation agency is reviewing a number of proposals, one of which addresses several problems on the bridge’s Seattle side: It meets environmental concerns by minimizing the impact on nearby marsh habitat. It connects with a planned light rail line. It allows traffic traveling into the city to exit directly in the midst of the University of Washington, located just north of a canal called the Montlake Cut. Other options dump traffic into a congested street south of campus and the canal, forcing northbound vehicles to join local traffic in a massive squeeze through a small surface bridge. 

But for the university, the so-called “Pacific Interchange” option is far from desirable, because it would cut through a parking lot that sits adjacent to a mammoth, revenue-producing football stadium and then travel near the university’s medical center.

Roughly 62,000 people attend or work at UW's Seattle campus, making it a major employer and an economic force in the area. At the same time, this makes the university a significant contributor to the traffic congestion that government and business leaders have identified as one of the most serious impediments to the area’s continued economic health.

The debate in Seattle reflects a growing reality for many urban colleges and universities. In an era of heightened anxiety over the environment, and with employees facing long commutes, institutions are major players in complicated, politically charged questions of roads, bridges and transportation systems. The university has a clear stake in the final decision on this public works project. But taking a position on the matter raises the issue of how a university should reconcile its self-interest with its role as part of a larger community.

UW hasn't taken an official stance on which plan it supports, but it hasn't shied away from voicing concerns, either.

“Our view is whatever the experts decide is the best solution, we’ll support,” said Norm Arkans, a university spokesman. “If people think [the Pacific Interchange] is the best transportation solution, we’ll support that. But the university has to continue to function successfully. You can’t fix transportation on one hand and damage the university on the other hand. We’re saying, don’t solve problems at the expense of others." 

And the university has made clear its belief that a multi-year construction project near campus would be a financial hardship, as it begins a $1 billion-plus capital improvement program.  The university has already sent to the state transportation department a mitigations list that outlines what it would ask from the state if the Pacific Interchange proposal is chosen. (Several options do not cross through the university's turf, but the two that appear to be garnering the most widespread interest do.)

The transportation department's bridge plans have already been impeded by major funding shortfalls, and the concessions requested by the university could add several hundred million dollars in costs to the plan. These include the construction of a parking garage, money to defray bridge construction-related cost increases for a stadium remodel, and millions in lost revenue from football and basketball ticket sales, as well as potential revenue loss at the medical center, assuming that people will avoid the area.

“You want to make sure you don’t leave anything off," Arkans said. “It’s not unusual to have a mitigations list when someone wants to complete a project that affects you like this.”

The Washington State Department of Transportation has not issued a public response to the mitigations. A department spokesman said it would be "inappropriate to comment" on the university's requests while construction proposals are still being discussed.  

Another bridge option, the so-called "Arboretum Bypass Plan," in which surface lanes come to shore near the football stadium and then dip underground before connecting with a planned university light rail line, is supported by many environmental groups, because it avoids a wetland area called the Arboretum. (The university is one of the managers of the habitat.)

Iain Robertson, an associate professor of landscape architecture at UW and a member of the committee that advises the university on its management of the Arboretum, said the bypass plan is the most environmentally sound option. "What I also like about the plan is the aesthetics," he added. "It has the potential of being an elegant entrance to the city."

Craig Dalby, a Seattle-area resident who came up with the bypass plan, said he recognizes that while the university will have traffic concerns, his plan is less obtrusive -- though it might require UW to temporarily give up sports practice facilities.  

The Pacific Interchange plan has the support of many city leaders, including Richard Conlin, chairman of the Seattle City Council's Route 520 committee. He said he doesn't understand why the university would object to the proposal.

“The odd thing is, this option positively affects the university," Conlin said. "It creates a better transit connection, which benefits faculty and staff.  It's better for the environment and by providing a pedestrian overpass to prevent accidents, it's better for everyone at the university."

Conlin said UW made a clear statement with its mitigations list. "On the one hand, it's important to have everyone at the table, but I wish it had been approached in a more constructive manner. [The university] needs to be part of the community."

Arkans said the university understands its role as a good neighbor, and it has released a list of guiding principles that explains how the institution is evaluating bridge replacement options. According to that list, Washington is looking for a plan that eases the movement of high occupancy vehicles, doesn't increase traffic on neighborhood streets and doesn't displace or degrade the Arboretum.

Dalby, the Seattle resident, said he would like to hear the university explain more of what it wants in the bridge project. Jonathan Dubman, co-founder of  BetterBridge, the Seattle group behind the six-lane Pacific Interchange proposal, said the university has been "obstructionist" during the process.

"I've never seen evidence to show that the university is engaged; [it] has been irresponsible and misguidedly self-serving and has taken a narrower view than its nearby neighborhood, even though it's a state university," Dubman said.

Arkans said that only a small percentage of commuters from the eastern suburbs are university employees. Nearly 80 percent of the campus population arrives using an alternative to driving alone, according to UW data.  In an effort to limit single occupancy vehicles on campus, Washington has a longstanding policy of subsidizing student and faculty passes to use public transportation.

Dubman said the effects of that policy have already been seen and that more is still needed to lessen the university's traffic footprint. Widening a major boulevard that runs through campus -- one facet of the Pacific Interchange plan -- will help improve traffic flow and provide the university with a more presentable entrance on one side, he said.

And then there’s the growth issue. Arkans says there is no current plan to build on the land that could be bisected by a new bridge extension, but that it is a potential site for building.

Robertson, the UW associate professor, said it's in the university's best interest to emphasize a potential loss of land. 

"The university has enormous areas of parking on campus. It's obvious that a lot of people are commuting daily and that there are great needs," he said. "At the same time, a bridge that would allow efficient public transportation and connect with transit is beneficial."


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