CLYDE HILL — Drivers traveling between the eastern shore of Lake Washington and northwest Bellevue briefly pass beneath three well-lit concrete spans covering the noisy corridor.
These are the 520 lids, built in the early 2010s as part of the nearly half-billion-dollar addition of HOV and bus lanes to the highway on the Eastside — one piece of the much larger 520 project still in progress today. Their existence was a peace offering to the affluent communities above — Clyde Hill, Hunts Point, Yarrow Point and Medina — that worried about increased noise and traffic. Atop the behemoths, which cost around $100 million to build in 2010 dollars, sit green spaces and roundabouts intended to mute the highway’s presence and connect the tony towns.
But for more than a decade now, these 7 acres of lawn and landscaping have been a point of dispute between the four cities and the Washington State Department of Transportation. Despite regular meetings among multiple mayors, transportation secretaries, lawyers and administrators, and with the help of legislators, Metropolitan King County Council members and thousands of dollars in legal fees, the two sides have still not answered one seemingly simple question: Who should take care of the grounds on the lids?
The state, which has weeded, watered, mowed and tidied the spaces since they were built, is ready to move on. The nearby cities, meanwhile, aren’t ready to take over.
The dispute has gone on for so long — officials first met to forge an agreement in 2010 — that the state Legislature has now gotten involved, budgeting $115,000 for a “dispute resolution” process.
“Our position is, they built it; it’s theirs,” said Steve Burns, Medina’s city manager.
Not so, says WSDOT. While it is indeed the state’s job to care for the roadway below and the lids’ structure, maintaining the park space above is firmly the responsibility of the nearby towns.
For both sides, the fight is a microcosm of the deeper issues plaguing each. For WSDOT, the state’s roads face an annual maintenance and preservation deficit of $350 million, according to the department’s calculations. Landscaping lids is not part of that calculation. Agreeing to care for these particular lids would set a precedent not afforded elsewhere.
“We have to be mindful of our budget,” said Stefanie Randolph, Northwest region communications manager for WSDOT.
The cities contend the cost is unmanageable for them, a paradox in the state’s tax code that means some of the state’s wealthiest communities sometimes struggle to balance their budgets. Yes, many — or most — of the towns’ residents are well-off, but with limited retailers, restricted property taxes and no income tax, the local governments are not as prosperous as the people they serve. Medina voters recently agreed to additional property tax just to cover basic services.
“We have very affluent residents, but as governments, we have very tight budgets,” said Burns.
The seeds of the conflict were sown nearly 25 years ago, as the state began planning an expansion of 520 on the Eastside to better accommodate transit and carpool lanes. Part of that process was community outreach. Since the highway opened in 1963, its presence has been viewed as a scar that cut through the enclave of small towns, some with populations smaller than a single block on Capitol Hill.
The expansion was viewed as an opportunity to claw back some of that connectivity.
“There was a lot of discussion about how do you stitch that back together again?” said Mitch Wasserman, a former city administrator for Clyde Hill.
Discussions began between the state and local communities in the late 1990s. A committee at the time explored a range of options for making the development less menacing, including creating one massive lid from Lake Washington to Bellevue inspired by the Mercer Island lid over I-90. The cost, estimated at $2 billion at the time, was overwhelming. The state instead landed on three separate lids at Evergreen Point, 84th Avenue and 92nd Avenue Northeast, each roughly costing between $25 million and $35 million in 2010 dollars.
Throughout the process, the question of who should look after them once they were built was never settled. According to an analysis by the Association of Washington Cities, state rules do not dictate maintenance of shared space in every circumstance, leaving it to WSDOT and local communities to negotiate. Both sides appear to have made assumptions: the cities, that state maintenance was part of the package; the state, that the lids would be city amenities and therefore the cities’ responsibility.
“We engaged early with the cities to understand their desires in the predesign and design process and we heard from them that they did want to see this highway lid feature,” said Randolph. “We moved forward on good faith on the understanding that we’d eventually come to an agreement with the cities” regarding maintenance.
Burns of Medina sees it differently. “Had they wanted us to do that, then we should have had this agreement before they built it,” he said. In fact, it might have changed the towns’ desire to have them at all. “In our communities, we already had parks,” he said. “They’re nice to look at, but the benefit, I think it would be hard to measure.”
Each of the three lids sports neatly coifed lawns with dense rings of decorative planting — Japanese snowball, David viburnum, cranesbill geraniums, Chinese barberry.
Two of the lids have roundabouts and two provide access to transit below. Each is a transition point for bikers and walkers coming and going from the 520 trail that follows the highway. On a sunny Wednesday, joggers trundle their way through, passing from Clyde Hill to Yarrow Point or Medina to Hunts Point. A lone WSDOT worker weed-whacks grass at the base of streetlights.
“It’s a great place to bicycle and walk and hopefully it can benefit everybody,” said Rep. Vandana Slatter, D-Bellevue.
The cost of sustaining the open space is roughly $30,000 an acre, per year — or around $200,000 a year.
In other, similar spaces, WSDOT provides some monetary support, but the local cities take on the bulk of the landscaped responsibility. Mercer Island cares for the plantings on the I-90 lid; in Seattle, when the Montlake lid is complete, the task will fall to the city; and in Freeland, on Whidbey Island, a planned roundabout there will be maintained by the local government.
Since their completion, and lacking a long-term agreement, WSDOT has cared for the Eastside lids. Last year, the department said it would pull back.
“We will stop irrigating and weeding the turf, reduce mowing the turf to line of sight, stop weeding (but continue irrigating) the landscape beds, discontinue fertilizing, and remove the garbage cans,” WSDOT deputy regional manager Brian Nielsen said in a letter last spring to Medina Mayor Jessica Rossman.
That threat came as a surprise to the towns.
“To withdraw that support prior to allowing these discussions to take place is concerning as we attempt to work together in good faith towards a mutually agreeable outcome,” responded the mayor of Hunts Point, Joseph Saby.
Elected officials, from the city level up to the state, have been peripherally part of the discussions for years. But this year the Legislature became more involved. The final transportation budget from the House and Senate, still awaiting Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature, includes $115,000 for a mediator to resolve the dispute.
Lawmakers also briefly considered putting a toll on the 84th Avenue ramp specifically for lid maintenance, but Inslee’s office raised concerns about that approach and it was not included in the final budget.
Rep. Slatter, whose district includes the lids and the four towns, said her goal is to make all sides feel heard.
“There’s a sense with any compromise and agreement that people have to find a solution,” she said.
The presence of highways near communities has received new scrutiny in recent years. The federal government’s infrastructure bill includes $1 billion for “reconnecting” communities severed by the many-laned freeways.
In turn, lids are having something of a moment
On the Eastside, the lids are already there. It’s what’s on top of them that’s uncertain.
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