Oral arguments for the Sustainable 520 lawsuit were heard Tuesday by US District Court Judge Ricardo S. Martinez and a standing-room-only gallery of observers. The suit challenges whether reasonable alternatives were studied in the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the S.R. 520 Replacement. A ruling in favor could require further environmental impact review and possibly push the project toward a more ‘sustainable’ — and affordable design.
Attorney David Bricklin, representing the Coalition for a Sustainable 520, argued the State failed in its duty to take a “hard look” at reasonable alternatives because only its preferred alternative — a 6-lane option — was included in the Final EIS. The end result: “decision makers were not given the options to decide the balance of issues.”
While a 4-lane option was studied early in the review process, it was dropped from consideration because according to the State, it did not meet the primary goal of increasing mobility across Lake Washington. Mr. Bricklin argued this decision was premature because the option was not studied with the effects of tolling.
Attorneys from the Federal Highway Administration and the State of Washington argued that tolling was, in fact, studied. They presented a State report showing that a 4-lane alternative required an $8 toll to meet its congestion goals (likely now contradicted by real world data on 520 – more on that below), but then performed poorly for overall mobility, carrying only 63% of the traffic of a “no-build” option. They argued this did not meet the project’s goals and was sufficient reason for the 4-lane option to be dropped.
However, in rebuttal, Mr. Bricklin pointed to the same report’s conclusion that a $3.50 toll applied to both the 4 and 6-lane options would carry roughly the same amount of traffic: 114,000 and 116,000 vehicles per day respectively. But since the report did not compare other tolling price points nor did it analyze how 520 tolls would affect mobility on I-90 or S.R. 522, there was not enough information for decision makers to make a reasonable conclusion.
Judge Martinez asked both parties whether the court should consider the real world data regarding the current tolls and traffic on 520. Here there was agreement: no — but for different reasons. The State argued it was still too early to draw conclusions about the new tolls and traffic flow on 520 – and that its design goals were for the year 2030, still too far off to predict with just six months of data. Mr. Bricklin argued the suit questions only the administrative decisions made in the EIS at the time of its writing.
A second issue was raised regarding the air quality impacts of the 6-lane preferred alternative. Mr. Bricklin claimed the State was required to study potential “hot-spots” — areas of traffic congestion and consequent high carbon monoxide levels — and this was not done for the “chokepoint” that will occur near Madison Park in 2014 when the new 6-lane bridge is installed next to the existing 4-lane west approach. The State’s attorney argued this would only be temporary until the next construction phase is complete. Ironically, a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would likely delay future phases and prolong the “hot-spot” issue argued here.
In the end, the State and Federal attorneys asked the court to affirm the Final EIS, claiming its “purpose is only to illuminate the impacts of a project, not to select from a range of alternatives.” While Judge Martinez gave little indication of his opinion, he did ask for other EIS precedents that looked at only one alternative – and seemingly got little in response.
A final decision is expected by the end of summer.