Bellevue business leaders call it The Disaster That Wasn't: three traffic interchanges rebuilt and a new mass-transit overpass added in the city's commercial heart without fatally...

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Bellevue business leaders call it The Disaster That Wasn’t: three traffic interchanges rebuilt and a new mass-transit overpass added in the city’s commercial heart without fatally clogging its arteries with gridlock.

And doing it millions of dollars under budget and a year ahead of schedule to boot.

As workers wire stoplights and grind the last of the concrete, many observers are calling the estimated $139 million Downtown Bellevue Access Project an example of a transportation project gone right in an era when cost overruns, lengthy delays and legal battles are the norm.

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The project area is one of the most congested in the region. On an average weekday, between 160,000 and 170,000 motorists travel through just the interchange of Northeast Eighth Street and Interstate 405, according to the state Department of Transportation (DOT). By comparison, about 220,000 cross Interstate 5’s Ship Canal Bridge on an average day.

Innovative construction methods, meticulous detour planning, constant communication and a commitment to limiting road closures mostly to the wee hours left downtown businesses and residents relatively unscathed.

“Everybody complains about government, but when they do it right, it’s a pleasure to see it work out,” said Clark Rice, a vice president with Kemper Development Co., owner of the mammoth Bellevue Square shopping center.

Rice plans to join other merchants, city officials and transportation folks this morning for a celebration on the new Northeast Sixth Street interchange.


Downtown Bellevue Access Project




Cost
: Expected: $164.5 million. Actual: approximately $139.2 million


Construction time:
Expected: five years. Actual: just over four years.


Traffic disruption:
Expected: closure of Northeast Eighth Street round the clock for 18 months. Actual: nighttime closures, limited to eight hours at a time.

Source: city of Bellevue and Washington state Department of Transportation


All credit the success to painstaking advance planning. After years of discussion on how to improve access to downtown Bellevue along Interstate 405, the city’s spine, DOT, Sound Transit, the city, King County and the Federal Highway Administration combined forces (and money) in 2001 to make it happen.

They would replace and expand the Northeast Eighth Street interchange, a major east/west arterial that brings motorists to the region’s biggest shopping center and the Eastside’s largest hospital; build a ramp strictly for buses and car pools at a new Northeast Sixth Street interchange to speed them to the Bellevue Transit Center; widen the Northeast Fourth Street interchange; and add ramps at the Southeast Eighth interchange. They would also build new overpasses wide enough to accommodate future widening of I-405.

When the business community was told Northeast Eighth Street could be closed for as long as 18 months, the nail-biting began.

“We did have a lot of trepidation about the potential impacts of this project,” said Leslie Lloyd, president of the Bellevue Downtown Association. “People were concerned that customers wouldn’t be able to find us.”

So planners opted for an innovative solution: Instead of closing Northeast Eighth Street during the day, they took a cue from a railroad bridge-building method and built the replacement overpass one half at a time, while motorists continued using the old span. One night, they rolled the two halves together.

The agencies hired contractors — Atkinson Construction and Mowat Construction — based on their track records and how fast they could turn jobs around, rather than simply who was cheapest.

Working at night became the norm. They limited work during the all-important holiday-shopping season. They worked on one interchange at a time to minimize disruptions.

“It was a huge puzzle putting together the sequence of this project,” said Goran Sparrman, transportation director with the city of Bellevue.

Local merchants say they haven’t noticed a drop in business due to the project.

Bob Pressey, co-owner of Merry-Go-Round Children’s Store, a 40-plus-year fixture at the corner of 112th Avenue Northeast and Northeast Eighth Street, which faces the project, said employees reported little difficulty navigating detours or being stuck in greater traffic than usual.

“Our employees have been able to figure out how to get here and we have not had a decline in business over the past year or so,” Pressey said. “It’s been a little bit of an inconvenience but not much.”

Complaints from residents and drivers have been minimal, said Melanie Coon, a DOT spokeswoman.

Peter Mikolajczyk, an electronics engineer who commutes from Issaquah to Bellevue, said he’s frustrated with the outcome of the southbound I-405 ramps, which funnel several lanes of traffic together.

“It’s kind of a slalom course right there,” he said. But as for the project, “The construction itself wasn’t that big a deal.”

The Bellevue Downtown Association gave the project team its Miracle of the Year award twice for its outreach and communication strategies and for the Northeast Eighth Street aspect of the project.

“We anticipate sometimes the worst, that we’re going to have a lot of traffic problems, that we’re going to have difficulties with the contractor. And sometimes things work out,” said Dave Becher, DOT project engineer.

Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or kgaudette@seattletimes.com