Slog - The Stranger's Blog

Line Out

The Music Blog

« What a Big Dog Is Good For | Old Kid on the Block »

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Aerial Option is “Illegal”

Posted by on September 14 at 15:12 PM

That’s what City Council Member Peter Steinbrueck just told me about the proposed option to build a new aerial structure in place of the old Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Steinbrueck, afraid that the price tag for the tunnel option ($4 billion plus?) will scare voters and put the aerial option over the top, says he’s readying an arsenal of preemptive strikes to ice the aerial option.

Steinbrueck acknowledges voters are being given a “false choice” between the aerial and the tunnel (he believes the recent study done by Smart Mobility makes a strong case for the no rebuild/surface/transit option), but he frets that option isn’t getting the traction it deserves. He says that leaves the tunnel and aerial options. Between those two, Steinbrueck supports the tunnel.

However, he’s antsy that the aerial option may win out in a public vote. (Sources tell me that recent polling by Team Nickels on the tunnel v. aerial options is inconclusive w/ both options neck and neck. This is the same poll, by the way, that showed Nickels’s $1.1 billion transportation package getting trounced.)

To preemptively thwart a rebuild, Steinbrueck introdcued legislation in his urban development committee yesterday in the form of amendments to the comprehensive plan that say a rebuild is illegal by several comp plan standards. “If it didn’t already exist,” Steinbrueck says, “it couldn’t be built there today under current code.”

Steinbrueck cites the state shoreline act which prohibits non-water related uses within 200 feet; city downtown heights code, which would prohibit a structure as massive as the Viaduct; and view corridor code, which would also prohibit the structure.

The council will meet next Friday (the 22nd) to decide exactly what question voters will take up this November. If the public chooses the aerial, Steinbrueck says he “hates to go against the voters, but he has to stand up for what he believes” …and he is adamantly opposed to running an elevated highway along the waterfront.

Steinbrueck’s comp plan amendments are pretty clear:

“Amend the Comprehensive Plan to clarify that City policies do not permit aerial structures on the Central Waterfront…”

“Prohibit aerial transportation structures such as bridges and viaducts on the central waterfront between King Street and Pike Street in order to facilitate the revitalization of downtown’s waterfront…”

“demolish transportation facilities that are functionally or aesthetically disruptive to the shoreline, such as the aerial portion of the Alaskan Way Viaduct on the Central Waterfront, or rebuild these facilities so that they do not negatively affect the shoreline.”

CommentsRSS icon

Hey Josh, where can we see a copy of the 'smart mobilty study?

Death to Viaduct!!!!

For Chrissakes, there is a reasonable and less expensive compromise to a tunnel or in-place rebuild.

I post the link once again:


Unfortunately, I've just got a PDF of the thing, which is unruly to put on the Slog. I did write a brief blurb about the study's conclusions in this week's print edition of the Stranger.

But if you want a copy of the full study, try e-mailing Norman Marshall at Smart Mobility: ... or his colleague Lucinda Gibson:

The full report from Smart Mobility is available on the Congress for the New Urbanism website:

I'm wondering if a legal argument could be made against a new, wider viaduct on the basis of the state Growth Management Act. I mean, it's kinda hard to be mandating focusing residential development in urban cores when you're driving a stake right through development in the most desirable urban core in the whole state.

Anyway, kudos to Peter Steinbrueck. I hope he and his colleagues have the guts to value their principles and legacies more than covering their electoral asses and just pass legislation that says loud and clear, "We're not letting another viaduct happen. It's gotta be the tunnel, and if the money's not there, it's gotta be the PWC option."

Last time I checked it was a state highway.

They determine what's legal.

Not the city.

In fact, since it's a state project, it's highly unlikely any county or state laws apply to it, no matter what Peter says.

Nice try. Still too expensive to build the tunnel though.

Once again: the city doesn't get a say. The state is going to do what they want.

Pardon my ignorance, but what's the downside of the surface alternative? Seems like it's just that it's not popular and doesn't cost a shitload of money.

There was a story last week in the P-I, "Political fight between city, state looms over tunnel," where House speaker Frank Chopp came out as dead set in favor of a rebuild. What's remarkable to me is that Chopp represents the 43rd District, only the most progressive, pro-transit, pro-density legislative district in the whole state. And here this guy is advocating building a massive elevated highway along a downtown waterfront. I mean, Joe Lieberman has nothing on Frank Chopp in terms of being out-of-step with his constituents.

I wish publications like The Stranger and organizations like Transportation Choices Coalition would publicly shame Frank Chopp on his position. For that matter, I wish one or two of these six candidates for Ed Murray's old seat would have taken on Chopp instead. Is there any doubt that a Jim Street or a Stephanie Pure is far more representative of the 43rd than Frank Chopp is? At this point, it sounds like the only thing the guy represents anymore is Olympia and its power structure.

Will in Seattle: Last time I checked it was a state highway. They determine what's legal. Not the city.

Fnarf: Once again: the city doesn't get a say. The state is going to do what they want.

Always glad to hear some great legal minds weigh in. Hopefully, we can also get some expert opinions from Cliff Claven and Dwight Schrute.

I wonder if the winning plan would be something like the bridge proposed by comment 3 (to maintain cross-town capacity) plus the surface option that includes either a streetcar or light rail line. That option seems like it would cost no more than the tunnel, probably much less, add a beautiful bridge to the city skyline, add transit, and result in less disruption during construction.

I would be absurdly more happy to pay for that than a leaky tunnel.

What is so wrong with the state and city government that this isn't at least being seriously considered? I *should* start praying...

Oh, and Cressona, Frank represents me. He'd probably like a Surface Plus Transit option, but sometimes it's not politically viable. In other words, to get the funding, it wasn't included.

But if you're unclear on how things work - remember when the City said the Feds couldn't build a Courthouse where they wanted? Guess what - they did. Same thing applies to State and County. It goes like this: Treaty - Federal - State - County - Municipal.

Don't believe me? Try smoking pot on a Federal military base. Or go smoke inside a casino on tribal land. You can do the latter, but you'll be jailed for the former.

Now now Will, Cressona knows everything, so just STFU, OK?

So exactly why are voters being asked to voter, er, my bad, the electorate being polled for their choice on an election ballot?

It sounds like whatever pissing match the Seattle Waterfront property owners, through the City Government and the State of WA are having, is that the City is trying to put the average voter in the middle of. yeah... the average person is getting pissed on... especial with this sort of pissy ass statement... so how many many months/years ago have these restrictions been in place, and now they are being brought up in public?

Oh, and since the GMA supposedly requires transportation facilities to be built/maintained/improved to keep pace concurrently with new and planned development, this would actually argue AGAINST tearing the AWV down and replacing it with nothing (this is why, for example, the County got clobbered in court for allowing new development without providing the necessary road improvements).

Nice try, though...

"What is so wrong with the state and city government that this isn't at least being seriously considered? I *should* start praying..."

They haven't studied because:

1) WSDOT doens't have any experience with
cable stayed bridges and unfamiliar with the technology inspite of it being used on a world-wide basis. 2) The city council never understood it had a say in the process. They were waiting for the state to tell them what to, and frankly I don't think there is anyone on the city council
who exhibits an intellectual curiousity regarding large capital construction projects and issues.

Both are completely blowing it, and we'll likely end up the worse for it.

While it may or may not have merit, Steinbrueck's move is nothing more than political posturing. Peter really doesn't have a dog in this fight, so he can use it as an opportunity to mess with his #1 enemy, Mayor Nickels. If Peter can eliminate the rebuild option from the November ballot, he figures that a straight up/down vote on the tunnel would go down in flames and hand Team Nickels a humiliating defeat. Prince Peter doesn't really care about this issue (and why shopuld he, there's no political benefit to be had in whatever the ultimate solution), he simply wants to poke a stick in the eye of Emperor Nickels.

Hmm. I doubt it, Nosy. I think Peter knows what EVERYBODY knows. This tunnel is a dog, and it's going down. What he wants to try and make sure of is that inevitability doesn't simply hand us a rebuild by default. Because if we don't start to question the very questionable assumptions of WSDOT (who are in the highway-building business, that's what they DO) that is what we'll end up with.

Don't move to Mexico. Run for office again!

If there was no viaduct on the waterfront today, would we build one? Ofcourse not.

That's weird, Josh, that's my idea too!

Frank is my rep as well, Cressona, and I totally agree that, between the two choices it appears we're going to be given: viaduct rebuild or cut-and-cover tunnel, so AFAIC, he's completely IN-STEP with this constituent.

But then, that's something I've never been able to fathom about extremists (in either direction) - they may agree with 97% of the same things you do, but by golly that 3% difference of opinion is ALWAYS the deal-breaker.

Grant, you should run. I'd vote for you if you took on Steinbrueck! I think you're giving him WAY too much credit. Just because everyone else knows something doesn't necessarily guarantee that Peter gets it. My experience is that he's even dumber than Rasmussen pretends to be. Shrewd politician, but a little empty upstairs.

I'm not suggesting that what Peter is doing is wrong, I'm merely pointing out that he's not necessarily doing it for the right reason.

HAHAHAHAHA what a corrupt, self serving, agendaic human being Steinbrueck is.

Steinbrueck cites the state shoreline act which prohibits non-water related uses within 200 feet

If that were actually enforced they'd have to shut down half the businesses on the Waterfront. You think Red Robin or McDonalds or the Gift Shops are water related?

What a douche. What a dirtbagging abuse of his position.

And sorry, Cressona, but Fnarf and Will are right. It's a state highway, so the decision is actually the state's, whims of agendaic city officials be damned.

At this stage, I bet both Nickels and Steinbrueck get boned, and the state mandates a standard rebuild.

I just hope ECB writes about the practical implications of what will go on the ballot.

She's tops of the local politics writers (the "never-ending tax" story was primo).

Mr. X: Now now Will, Cressona knows everything, so just STFU, OK?

This may be difficult for you to process, Mr. X, but I don't actually claim to know everything. My issue is with the amateurs who don't know a barrister from a barista who do.

It's easy for freeway boosters to repeat their mantra, "It's a state highway. It's a state highway." And as a mere layman, I would agree that state authority always trumps municipal authority.

But then why is the state asking the city at all for its preference? Why not just plow ahead? And what if the city does express its preference for the tunnel, according to the state's request? Is the state going to turn around and say, "Well yeah, we asked you, but we really didn't want to hear your answer after all."

Here's a passage from the P-I story:
Both sides have put the other on notice that they hold veto power: The state controls billions of dollars in gas taxes; the city reigns over construction permits.

"I think the mayor's going to play tough on the permits," predicted City Council President Nick Licata. "As long as he feels he's got the majority of the council, I think he feels he can stall or stop a rebuild...."

Suppose the mayor denies the construction permits. Even though he might ultimately lose, this thing would be tied up in court for years. Instead of waiting and waiting, the legislature may just throw its hands up and shift all the money to the 520 bridge replacement. Or in the interest of getting things done, Christine Gregoire may step in much sooner and get Chopp and gang to acquiesce.

If someone has a better grasp of these scenarios, I would be happy to hear.

Thanks Nosy, Josh, and Phil....I think. You couldn't pay me enough to do that again. (And I say that as someone who's flat broke and about to sell ALL my possessions - BTW is there anything you want?) I ain't running for nothing but the border.

And I'd like to see you call Steinbrueck a douchebag to his face, Gomezticator. He's the only one on the council that I could easily picture kicking someone's ass.

I think Cressona is right. PWC wins by default.

I'd like to see Steinbrueck kicks the WSDOT's ass once they and everyone else laugh to his face for trying to call the rebuild illegal.

Also, if the PWC wins by default, then why are you running for the hills?

Further agreement; PWC wins by default, if by nothing else. Within a decade, Olympia's focus will be over on Lake Washington. Political inertia, lawsuits, gravity and time will bring the viaduct down, with the present local transportation network sufficing with adjustments, because it will have to. (And in all non-trolling seriousness, what a damned shame it is there won't be a Green Line to factor into this new Alaska Way mix.)

This is a home-rule state folks. It ain't as simple as state trumps municipal. Sure, locals don't have as much power as parishes in Louisiana under Napoleonic law, but the state actually can't (by constitution) force Seattle to issue permits. State highway; city land. If the jurisdictions don't get together, as Nickels has said publicly (not just "default"), the PWC option is the third option.


"But then why is the state asking the city at all for its preference?...Suppose the mayor denies the construction permits. Even though he might ultimately lose, this thing would be tied up in court for years."

Uh, the State's requiring a vote, cuz it's not just about whether you can win but whether or not a fight like that (against Seattle?) would be a good thing.

If I was the Democrat Speaker in this state, I'd want to be sure there were enough transportation dollars to spread equitably around the state too and not be vulnerable to attacks of using my position to dump all the money in my district. Chopp kicks ass.

Under the state growth management act, an elevated replacement would be an “essential public facility.” The pertinent state law is RCW 36.70A.200, “Siting of Essential Public Facilities,” which includes transportation facilities as defined in RCW 47.06.140. The money quote here is “interregional state principal arterials.”

Section 5 of RCW 36.70A.200 states: “No local comprehensive plan or development regulation may preclude the siting of essential public facilities.”

That means any talk Nickels gives about controlling permits is smoke and mirrors. He can delay permits. That's it.

Cressona and Cogswell bring up a default gridlock scenario, and theorize it leads toward a surface alternative. But if the state is in charge, doesn’t that scenario lead to repairing the Viaduct? Nickels can’t tear it down. Only the state can. PWC might win in the end, but a big repair job would come first.

If Nickels does delay permits, the state has a thousand or so ways to screw over the City.

Cressona @ 29,

Now you pose an interesting question.

I concur with you and Smiles that the City can hold up permits in the short term, but I still think the State would likely prevail in a fight regarding the siting of "essential public facilities" (and I use quotes because the Kelo decision defined that as pretty anything an elected body says it is. Where that phrase used to invoke water mains, highways, and hospitals, it now means stadia, upscale housing, and Wal Mart).

A recent and I think defining example was Snohomish County losing a legal fight to King County regarding the siting of the Brightwater Facility. SnoCo intended to use just the local rights you invoke, but were basically forced to acede to the project in court because the GMA and local complans require jurisdictions to site "essential public facilities."

I'd be willing bet the state would win a court fight on whether a longstanding public highway that carries over 100,000 trips per day in a growing region is an "essential public facility"

Of course, Seattle's State Reps and the Mayor and Council don't really want that, but that is how it could well play out - especially with the amount of money that is involved.

As a matter of politics, the State posed the question to the City because they got sick of Greg Nickels pushing forward (and spending a lot of money, and potentially wasting a lot of time) to get us to start digging a tunnel before we had figured out a way to pay for it. The fact that they were gonna let us vote on it (given that Chopp and Sommers probably had plenty of votes to impose their will at the state level) seems like an effort to push things forward.

And where others here think that means the PWC plan wins by default, it seems to me that the Twelker/Grey proposal to retrofit the existing structure does.

Good point about 520, Cressona. If Greogoire steps up and pushes the legislature to shift Viaduct $$$ to 520 to get it fully funded, she'll appeal to voters on the Eastside, the ones she needs to get re-elected.

That likely wouldn't happen until early 2008, and only then if the RTID doesn't pass in 2007, and the City and State Viaduct battle royale continues.

Here's a cynical thought: perhaps Nickels waterfront tunnel should be called the Governor Dino Rossi option.

Nice job, Blob (named for the former Orestes, I'm guessing?).

In the time it took me to compose my post @ 36 during the commercials on the Daily Show, you actually provided the substance/law stuff to back me up.

It's like a Vulcan mind meld, but without Paul Allen or Joel Horn.

"Gregoire, the state's top transportation official now that the Legislature has given her control of the Department of Transportation, ordered the agency to quickly update cost estimates..."

Maybe some of you ought to rethink your assumptions about the Gov's "support" for the tunnel. I think some of our good electeds at the state level are pursuing a policy approach that avoids a knock down brawl between Seattle and the rest of the State (and resonating for decades to come - don't forget, the D's have the Gov, the House, and Senate - you want to lose that?). It's about seeing the forest not the trees. Who cares who'd win a permit fight with the state? What a drag.

Everybody's so focused upon getting their pet preference to win and are not focused on making something happen that at least evolves out of the tenuous compromise that the Gov. - in her wisdom - is insisting Seattle build. Play it out - if they fund an option that there is significant local resistance to, what kind of political fall out results?

Personally, I support retrofit/rebuild. Yet, if there's a vote and tunnel wins, I'll put my preference aside in the interest of SOMETHING happening. If there's no vote - all of the losing options will have sour grapes. They'll fight. Who wants this? The vote is about building a public consensus about something to turn it into a consensus about PAYING for it.

Let's not confuse the Rebuild with the Retrofit.

The Retrofit will be the only option remaining when the other three go down because they are politically impossible.

I read the letter in the link of comment No.3 and it is interesting how spot-on its author condensed and described the current political argument over the tunnel and rebuild. It is certainly reflected in the additional comments made here on the topic.

Unfortunately the issue has become polarized between competing interests supporting a tunnel or rebuild options while other viable and far less expensive proposals such as this cable stay bridge described in the letter have not seen the light of day.

Why were these other proposals never given a proper vetting by the city and state? There has been little or no transparency in the decision making process that quickly reduced the
alternatives to a tunnel and a rebuild. This should give everyone cause for concern regardless of their individual support for a particular proposal. It should have been assumed that a replacement viaduct would be one of the proposals, however to have nothing else
beyond a exceptionally underfunded tunnel given serious consideration is profoundly irresponsible. It certainly questions whose interests are really being served, and perhaps that is the question we all should be asking.


1. Existing gas tax covers the cost of the rebuild.

2. Retrofit would cost much less, and disrupt traffic far less. The gas tax money saved could be used to take care of SR 520 project costs.

3. No one has yet said which tax bills would get bigger, or how long those extra taxes would last, if the tunnel is selected.

Right now it seems the tunnel option is nothing more than a pig in a poke we are being asked to buy. Retrofit is a practical solution that would save money (money the expert review panel says the SR 520 project needs).

Steinbrueck’s proposed comp. plan amendments show he's primarily an aesthete, and that's certainly not what we need from someone who's supposed to be a fiscally-responsible civic leader on this kind of matter.

Btw, we all know how contentious this issue is and that there will be mucho law suits with any decision. So one thing to bear in mind is that that the Retrofit, as an emergency repair to an existing facility, will NOT, I believe, be subject to SEPA. That exemption takes away a huge source of lawsuit bait. The Governor, when she comes to make the final decision, will probably remember that wrinkle. One more point for the Retrofit when it comes to practicality.

When the final bill comes in for twice or three times the number people are quoting now, who will pay for that? Ten billion for a tunnel, minimum. And a five-year delay, if not outright abandonment, when they start finding Indian graves, which is a 100% certainty.

I've heard from active Duwamish tribe folks that the original village on Elliott Bay turned up in the Port of Seattle construction a few years ago and they mananged to blow it off. WSDOT will no doubt do the same.

Gomez, I'm running for the hills because the triumph of wisdom (PWC) by default is not the same as a victory based on the farsightedness and common sense of the citizenry. I'm not in politics anymore and I'm not in the PWC. I am without hope, and I am done.

"I've heard from active Duwamish tribe folks that the original village on Elliott Bay turned up in the Port of Seattle construction a few years ago and they mananged to blow it off. WSDOT will no doubt do the same."

How did they "blow it off"? Money?


I hate to bring this up but:

What's going to happen to the tunnel when the ICECAPS MELT??

They're predicting 7 meters of sea rise. That's a VERY expensive aquarium.

Comments Closed

In order to combat spam, we are no longer accepting comments on this post (or any post more than 45 days old).