Feds give wider I-405 the hook

Associated Press

BELLEVUE — The federal government says plans to expand I-405 would hurt wild chinook salmon and must be changed.

The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service told the state Department of Transportation earlier this month to drop plans to widen the highway unless state officials can show the fish will be protected.

NMFS suggested the state encourage mass transit rather than widening the highway by as much as six lanes, as plans call for. But state officials believe they can design an expansion that won’t hurt the fish.

I-405 is the state’s second-busiest freeway. It stretches 33 miles from Tukwila to Lynnwood and carries 290,000 vehicles every day. NMFS must approve expansion plans before the state can apply for federal grants and construction permits.

The agency worries that widening the freeway would create too much pavement near the Lake Washington and Issaquah River watersheds.

More rainwater would land on pavement and flow into drainage systems, and less water would be absorbed into soil, where it could replenish the water table and area rivers, said NMFS spokesman Brian Gorman.

State Sen. Jim Horn, a Mercer Island Republican and member of the state’s I-405 expansion committee, said the agency is overstepping its bounds.

"I’m very concerned, very upset," he said Thursday.

The state is conducting an 18-month, $6.5 million study of the I-405 corridor. Transportation officials have asked to meet with NMFS. That could happen as soon as next week.

"We believe that it is too early in the process to conclude that none of the alternatives can be designed or implemented to satisfy (the Endangered Species Act)," Michael Cummings, state I-405 planning coordinator, wrote the agency.

Cummings said his department is confident it can come up with a plan that will satisfy the government, and Gorman agreed it’s possible.

"We’re not saying this project can’t be done," Gorman said. "Growth itself causes serious problems with salmon habitat. There are ways to let growth develop in a green way, and another method, which is just throwing your hands up."

The federal government last year declared Puget Sound chinook salmon a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

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