Watchdog Accuses the State of Building Paul Allen’s Seahawks a $39 Million Driveway

Is this another public gift, or a necessary safety precaution for pedestrians crossing the railroad tracks?

Plans to build a snake-like overpass for vehicles and pedestrians next to Qwest and Safeco Fields has the look of another public gift for the city’s wealthy professional sports franchise owners, says Vince Koskela, head of the little watchdog group Taxpayers On Strike.

"Why do you put a bridge on top of what's already a street?" he wonders.

The state says it was prepared for criticism of its little-known plan for an elaborate $39 million loop road that within a couple of years will carry traffic up, around, and over Third Avenue South, across nearby railroad tracks, then drop back down to Royal Brougham Way—currently a heavily traveled surface street that runs between the two stadiums.

At the top of the new elevated roadway, a ramp will lead to a new upper-level entrance into the parking garage at Qwest Field, operated by Seahawks owner Paul Allen. The Mariners have a similar ramp leading from a new state roadway at South Atlantic Street—known also as Edgar Martinez Drive—to Safeco Field's garage.

Koskela, a frequent stadium-financing critic, suspects that the whole scheme amounts to the Seahawks simply getting what the Mariners already have, at a heavy cost to taxpayers.

"The benefits to Mr. Allen have come up," acknowledges Ali Amiri, project director for the loop roadway, part of the second phase of the State Route 519 Intermodal Access Project, the catch-all name for the stadium-area freeway ramp system. Like the M's, concedes Amiri, the Hawks will benefit from the ramp to their garage (both teams support the plan). "But that's not our main intent," he adds. "This is being done for safety and mobility."

Especially safety: The new elevated structure grew out of a plan to make stadium streets safer for pedestrians crossing train tracks, Amiri says. The roadway will effectively be a span atop most of Royal Brougham between Fourth Avenue South and First Avenue South, the steroidal evolution of a concept to build an elevated pedestrian walkway over the Burlington Northern tracks that parallel the stadiums. As it stands, impatient sports fans are often seen sprinting in front of the moving trains and some have been injured. (According to state figures, four people have been hit and seriously hurt by trains at the Brougham crossing since Safeco Field opened in 1999, resulting in at least one lawsuit against the state.)

Though new drop-down pedestrian warning arms were added to signals at the rail crossing in April, Amiri says officials have decided the safest solution is an overpass and closure of Royal Brougham Way to foot and vehicular traffic to ensure people use the new walkway instead. (The street will be blocked off at the east end, but open to local vehicle access from First Avenue.) After considering how best to reroute traffic, Amiri says, city, state, and Port of Seattle officials decided to go with an expanded car-pedestrian combo overpass.

Amiri says the new Seahawks garage entrance is necessary because the surface-level entrance will be less accessible once the new loop roadway is built and Royal Brougham is closed to through traffic. But Koskela, a retired construction engineer, says that's an unnecessary excess resulting from an unnecessary roadway. Instead of an easy turn onto Brougham, he says, you'll have to go up and down a series of ramps. "There's no justification," he adds.

Though it is portrayed as part of state Route 519 (the name given to the one mile of connecting ramps from and to Interstate 5 and Interstate 90), the loop road won't actually be directly attached to 519. Some vehicles will, for example, exit from 519 at the current Fourth Avenue South off-ramp, head south on Fourth, then quickly swing onto Third Avenue South, where they can access the new elevated roadway. After a 180-degree loop, they'll drop down to Royal Brougham again.

Funded by the Legislature, with construction slated to start next year, the loop and other improvements—collectively known as Phase 2—are expected to cost $74.4 million. (State planners say they are "60 percent certain" of this estimate.) The first phase of 519, which opened in 2003 at a cost of $101 million, includes an eastbound ramp that connects to the I-5 and I-90 freeways from First Avenue South and Atlantic, running between Safeco and its garage.

But Koskela, who regularly pores over state financial documents as a hobby, feels the 519 costs are being understated. Phase 1, first estimated at $89 million, set taxpayers back $158 million when federal funds are factored in, by his calculations. And he thinks Phase 2 will come in at more than twice its estimate.

Either way, with a total public outlay surpassing $1.5 billion to build the two stadiums and various traffic spurs, the curmudgeonly Koskela says, "Don't you think we have spent enough public money ontwo wealthy, private-party, special-interest, professional sports franchises?"

Amiri says Koskela is overlooking other benefits. Besides pedestrian safety improvements—a new Sound Transit light-rail station will also be linked to the new overpass—Phase 2 will further smooth out freight and ferry traffic to and from the waterfront, he says. There will be improved surface traffic flow to Atlantic (aka Edgar Martinez Drive), and the project is designed to eventually tie into whatever system replaces the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

"We've studied it extensively," Amiri said during a recent open house at Union Station, where there appeared to be more state officials than visitors, indicating the loop project is not encountering much active opposition. "It's not just about the stadium. This meets our goal: to provide protection and the best distribution of traffic in a congested area."

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