UW officials are now pushing for what they consider to be a more elegant design for connecting the campus and a new light-rail station. But it comes with a higher cost and state opposition.

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When it comes to light-rail planning, nothing is easy or cheap.

Sound Transit and the University of Washington had agreed that the best way to connect the campus with the new Husky Stadium light-rail station was with a curving skybridge over busy Montlake Boulevard Northeast.

But the UW now is doing a U-turn.

UW officials are pushing for what they consider to be a more elegant idea. The university calls it the Rainier Vista extension, which would add $12 million in cost.

Instead of a skybridge, transit riders would use a new crosswalk on Montlake Boulevard, aided by a new, midblock traffic signal. State traffic engineers warn that change could worsen traffic on Montlake.

Riders could reach the campus via a new “land bridge” to be built over Northeast Pacific Place. The bridge would help create a visual connection with the UW’s Drumheller Fountain.

UW officials say that picture — thousands of people crossing a tree-lined triangle, with Mount Rainier in the background — evokes the glory of a century ago, when a similar promenade was part of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.

But to make that happen, Northeast Pacific Place also would have to be lowered to add the land bridge.

Meanwhile, the station site is being prepped for construction. The station will be the north end of a 3-mile transit tunnel, to open in six years. Scrapping the skybridge would require transit engineers to alter the station design. The project still can stay on schedule, provided a decision is reached this spring on Montlake, transit spokesman Bruce Gray said.

Who decides?

It is difficult to discern who will have the final say.

The university is pushing hard: It’s asking contractors to bid on its Rainier Vista walkway by Tuesday, with a winner to be announced April 15.

However, additional technical and traffic studies first must be finished, funding sources must be firmed up and UW regents have to approve it, said Olivia Yang, the university’s interim director of strategic initiatives. “We are putting a lot of effort into trying to make it happen.”

Although Sound Transit’s original skybridge was approved by UW regents in November 2008, the UW decided last year to take another look, Yang said, in light of two city policies. One is to discourage skybridges and the other to encourage “complete streets” to accommodate bicycles and pedestrians as well as motor vehicles on roadways.

The UW also has asked Seattle to kick in $4 million. The city now says that, while the UW’s concept is well-designed, it can afford only $500,000 for signal and crosswalk work.

The state Department of Transportation says it has authority to approve or reject a new traffic light for pedestrians to cross Montlake Boulevard, a state route. It carries 45,000 vehicles daily.

“If it’s a new at-grade crossing, we have expressed our opposition,” said Mark Leth, regional traffic engineer. “It’s already a very congested route.”

Even though Sound Transit has completed its skybridge design, CEO Joni Earl signed a memorandum with the UW and the city in mid-2009 to share the cost of a $600,000 Rainier Vista technical study, keeping the UW option alive.

The transit board likely will consider the issue in May, according to project director Ron Endlich. The UW proposal is estimated to cost $18.8 million, of which the UW, Sound Transit and the city each were to contribute $4 million. The transit agency also would contribute $6.8 million “in savings” by not building the skybridge.

The university since has tried to trim those costs. In recent drawings for bidders, the “land bridge” has been slimmed to 35 feet wide instead of a 100-foot-wide version that was shown at a public forum Dec. 2.

More gridlock?

When the proposal was aired in December, some citizens spoke up against what they considered the absurdity of adding another stoplight on Montlake, suggesting pedestrians might be tempted to jaywalk or gridlocked cars might wind up in the middle of the new crosswalk.

A traffic study by the UW’s consultant says north-south traffic on Montlake shouldn’t be affected much, because the new signal can be synchronized with those at Northeast Pacific Street and Northeast Pacific Place. But traffic entering Montlake from side streets and parking lots would face additional delays, the UW’s report said.

As for safety, the proposed crosswalk can be made safe, said Eric Widstrand, a city traffic engineer, but it would require extra lighting and police enforcement.

Bicyclists also would have an easier time crossing the street and the landscaped triangle than using a skybridge, said Marni Heffron, a city consulting engineer.

The studies also don’t reflect possible traffic changes related to the Highway 520 replacement project — in part because the 520/Montlake interchange is still being debated.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com