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Friday, February 2, 2007

Viaduct! Viaduct! Viaduct!

posted by on February 2 at 17:08 PM

(Boring subtitle: A Report from Yesterday’s Hearing on the Pro-Tunnel Challenge to the Voter Pamphlet)

Yesterday’s hearing on a pro-tunnel legal challenge to voter pamphlet language describing the two viaduct measures, covered exhaustively by marathon reporter Larry Lange here, had the unwelcome distinction of being possibly the most boring meeting I’ve ever covered. (Seriously: When I left, they were debating whether to describe the state department of transportation’s cost-estimating process as the “normal” or “usual” process. Ultimately, they went with neither.) The main news was that the city’s ethics board agreed to delete language describing funding for Mayor Nickels’s four-lane tunnel as “uncertain,” and added language saying the state had “validated” the rebuild, but not the tunnel. But the thing that struck me most strongly was how bad the city attorney’s arguments actually were.

Essentially, the city attorney’s office—represented by Carlton Seu—attempted to justify leaving in the sentence describing tunnel funding as “uncertain” because that statement was true. The attorney for the tunnel proponents, didn’t dispute that, but called sentence “completely political”— which it was. Seu countered that the sentence “points out the differences between the two alternatives that the city attorney considered to be necessary.” But that’s not exactly true. Yes, as commissioner Robert Mahon noted, “the money [for either option] is uncertain and it’s always going to be uncertain until the thing’s actually built.” But there are tons of facts the city attorney’s office didn’t see fit to include: The fact that the new viaduct will be 50 percent wider and significantly taller than the current one; the fact that the viaduct would be closed during construction for at least four years and wouldn’t open until 2020; the fact that a new viaduct would violate numerous state and federal environmental and growth-management laws; and on and on. The city attorney’s inclusion of this one anti-tunnel fact, and the omission of so many others that would have benefited the tunnel over the new viaduct, seems like an awfully political move for an office that claims to be above politics.

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the fact that a new viaduct would violate numerous state and federal environmental and growth-management laws


Posted by rodrigo | February 2, 2007 7:06 PM

"the fact that a new viaduct would violate numerous state and federal environmental and growth-management laws;"

As I understand the law, this is probably not the case. Exceptions to the Shoreline Management Act are easily made for essential (and, unfortunately, not so essential) State facilities, and I think Federal laws have similar loopholes. With regard to the GMA, if anything, the requirement for transportation concurrency would imply that tearing the AWV down and not replacing it would be a far great GMA violation than rebuilding a road that has been there for over 50 years.

The City can pass whatever guidelines it wants to say that rebuilding the AWV is against City policy, but the fact remains that the State will trump them every time.

Also, the fact that Peter S. is pushing for a multistory waterfront hotel to be part of the Coleman Dock redevelopment plan makes his arguments that rebuilding the AWV would violate SEPA and the Shoreline Management Act ring hollow, indeed.

Posted by Mr. X | February 2, 2007 7:07 PM

Does the voter pamphlet description of the tunnel option indicate how many express transit connections to and from the downtown business district it would permanently eliminate?

Posted by Smarm | February 2, 2007 7:09 PM

Mr X -- on the money. A good game of Land Grab is in the offing if the Fucker comes down.

Posted by Lloyd Clydesdale | February 2, 2007 7:35 PM

Smarm--the tunnel description does not include information about the number of transit connections that will be eliminated. However, it does include misleading claims that the tunnel lite would

1) permanently make 3rd Avenue bus-only during rush hour (this isn’t even connected to the Viaduct decision at all)

2) provide funding for additional bus service hours (mitigation may provide this, but would do so equally for the elevated option)

Somehow, these goodies didn’t get included in the elevated option.

Or maybe they’re just talking about a parallel universe here, the one where the tunnel only costs 49 cents.

Posted by Transit? What Transit? | February 2, 2007 7:49 PM

Somehow, the elevated has to be 50% wider so that big wide shoulders can be added to meet federal safety standards, yet they’re claiming the tunnel doesn’t need shoulders at all during rush hour?

Am I the only one who smells a rat?

Posted by BB | February 2, 2007 7:55 PM

Mr. X is correct.

I was the very first planner hired by the City fo Seattle to work on Shoreline Management. Yes that was a long time ago.

The plans and regulations which "prohibit" a Viaduct are both easily changed and also trumped by Statewide needs.

And the idea that Peter Steinbrueck (I assume, not Sherwin?) is pushing for an overwater hotel is funny (are you sure he is for that?) as that idea has been around since 1975 (at least) and was rejected by the City in the very first Shoreline Master Program. I remember Jon Runstad arguing for it before the City Council but they said "No thanks."

Personally I think that some of the Shoreline regs go a bit too far but they are there and if Peter Steinbrueck truly thinks that they should be changed for an overwater hotel then I can't imagine that they couldn't be adpted to accept a new Viaduct.

No the argument against a Rebuild is simply that it is a waste of money when we can Repair the existing one at much lower expense.

Posted by David Sucher | February 3, 2007 8:22 AM

#3 Not only doesn't the underlining resolution speak to the transit changes it basically doesn't say anything - the only information is in the whereas statements - in defeating my ballot title appeal the central argument they made was that the title they had written could be right because there are almost no details in the resolution and only the resolution and referred to documents could be used to contest the titles - so Frank Chopps letter couldn't be used - statements that money wouldn't be available made by various state officials couldn't be used etc.

Not even Nickels statement that the safety shoulders will be used during peak hours could be used -

Advisory votes are totally without value and Carr's statement on what a yes vote means should have been changed to the truth - one word - nothing

Posted by Peter Sherwin | February 3, 2007 12:08 PM

"The city attorney’s inclusion of this one anti-tunnel fact, and the omission of so many others that would have benefited the tunnel over the new viaduct, seems like an awfully political move for an office that claims to be above politics."

If they would have included more anti-tunnel facts it would have helped the tunnel over the viaduct? Is EB saying that Carr supports the viaduct?

BTW - I understand that the newest plans for the rebuild (which I oppose, NO-NO vote) will keep some lanes open during construction and the final design may well be more attractive than the drawing the pro tunnel people have put out (Consultants, Nickels, SCC)

Also if four lanes work for a tunnel why not for a viaduct - which means it could be a single level structure with center supports - still not my preferrence

Posted by Peter Sherwin | February 3, 2007 12:35 PM

The surface-transit option has a number of onerous conditions. Unfortunately, its greatest problem is the multi-lane boulevarding of motor vehicle
traffic on Alaska Way. Much like the current Viaduct, this will restrict the public from the waterfront and reduce the availability of open and buildable space in the corridor.

The only reasonable alternative is still the cable stayed bridge..provided it is viable. Estimates of about $1.8 billion in build costs coupled with the fact the central waterfront and current Viaduct can remain in situ during construction likely make it the least destructive in terms of cost to existing businesses and citizens utilizing the corridor. Cable stayed bridges generally have a short build times and most of the construction can be accomplished off site and ferried to location. This proposal will provide more open space than tunnel light, surface-transit or a viaduct rebuild or repair. This will allow for additional housing and businesses to utilize the corridor, and it will provide the space necessary to adequately include future transit capabilities.

None of the other proposals can reclaim
as much property as the construction of a cable stayed bridge and accomplish it at a comparable cost.

Posted by Princess Caroline | February 3, 2007 1:26 PM

Often when the City Attorney's (and not only this current City Attorney) advice is called out as politically motivated on a capital project their response is to say that they are performing a risk management function for the City and taxpayers.

I am making the distinction here of legal advice on a *capital* project, as opposed to legal arguments supporting a policy-objective of the the City Attorney. The reason is, by the Charter, the City Attorney can promote his/her own policy objective and make arguments to the Council that advance those objectives. In these cases, the Council is assigned another City Attorney to give independent advice, and the advice this attorney gives to his/her client, the Council, is not supposed to be influenced by the policy objective of the City Attorney. There are many examples of policy objectives of the City Attorney, that are supported with what some may call "politically motivated" legal arguments that focus more on the objective that the City Attorney supports and less on the legal risk because the objective is deemed worth the risk. The structure of the City Attorney's office permits this dual role - but the City Attorney is not acting as the Council's counsel when s/he is promoting his/her policy objective.

In the instance ECB writes here about, of the legal arguments supporting the Viaduct ballot measure he wrote, I believe the City Attorney would say that the decision to only include established and certain facts in the ballot measure is to minimize the risk of a lawsuit because capital projects change dramatically in each cost, design, and impacts over the life of a project. The City desires the flexibility of ballot measures that offer little specifics because in this way they can limit voter expectations and, in turn, reduce the likelihood of lawsuits when these project costs, designs, and impacts change.

People often think that the Law Dept. - when advising the City - advises primarily according to case precedents, or according to who would win. But they don't just advise according to who would prevail in a lawsuit, they do it to minimize the chance that voters will say - "this isn't what I voted for..." Sound Transit is a perfect example when the flexibility to make changes wasn't built in. Subsequently, when the length of the line and the cost changed, lawsuits were filed. Sound Transit prevailed. This is partially, I believe, why the Law Dept. made the arguments they have in this instance. I believe, they aren't worried about winning in court, rather they want to minimize the likelihood - again, by lowering voter expectations in the ballot titles - of going to court at all.

It's an interesting interplay between what happens when 1) policymakers don't make policy according to the public's understanding of their own best interests, 2) policymakers send these decisions instead to the ballot, and 3) the Law Dept's promotes a conservative legal approach to keep the City out of court. The result of this interplay is that - just like Peter Sherwin wrote above - the measure ends up meaningless and accountability gets even more illusive.

I honestly don't know what the answer is. I support an advisory vote on the viaduct because I believe that a greater harm would be done if the City pursued an option that large numbers of people would actively oppose. The greater harm would be "no" votes when it comes time to vote on paying for an unpopular project, because a lot of funding for other good projects would go down with the Viaduct funding in a voter-approved bond measure.

The response of some to this dilemma (particularly those that support the tunnel and surface, cuz money is already in hand for the elevated) to this scenario is - "then maybe the City just shouldn't fund the Viaduct with any voter-approved money."

If this is your response, then understand that the remaining options are Council approved debt and utility rate funding. Relying on the former - for a project this size - is financially irresponsible and the latter is legally risky because the City has lost over and over in court when using rate payer revenue for projects w/o limiting it to a direct one to one dollar relationship to the *utility* impact of the project that is using rate payer revenue as a funding source.

Note: What I have written here is ENTIRELY my speculation. I have not read any opinions of the City Attorney on this topic. As a city employee, to do so, and write an analysis on SLOG of what those opinions say would be a disclosure of attorney-client privileged information. A big no-no.

Posted by LH | February 3, 2007 3:12 PM

Princess Caroline--

A cable stayed bridge could only be permitted if there are no other reasonable alternatives, due to the chinook salmon endangered species listing.

WSDOT says the towers would need to be 800 feet total, with 600 feet for foundations, so I'm suspicious of the low cost projection. I agree though, it would look pretty cool.

Posted by BB | February 3, 2007 4:13 PM


Which subspecie of Chinook are we talking about here? WSDOT conveniently didn't bother to inform us.

It's highly unlikely permitting would have been allowed for Pier 66, Seattle Aquarium, the city's seawalls, a Coleman Dock rebuild, etc. if there was a negative impact on Chinook. Consequently, I think WSDOT is throwing up a smokescreen. FWIW, it is impossible to measure or even suggest adverse impact when you don't have a bridge plan in hand.

I also think there has been an attempt on the part of WSDOT to dissuade city and public interest in the cable stayed bridge because they have invested an incredible amount of time, money and political capital in Tunnel One and a Viaduct Rebuild. Frankly, I think they are burned out and frustrated.

As far as I understand, the towers heights and foundation sizes were based on some pretty old bridge technology
and using a best guessed estimate of soil conditions. I don't believe WSDOT has commissioned any soil studies to date, which I will admit is pretty hard to accomplish because there is no definite site or bridge plan per se. Again, their focus has been Tunnel One and Viaduct Rebuild. I suspect the towers a towers and footings would be much smaller than what WSDOT suggested.

As I understand,the cost is a rough estimate at best and based on recent costs of bridges that have similar seismic, environmental and construction concerns. AFAIK, we would likely have to import the engineering and designers. I think the closest are to
be found in Vancouver B.C.

Lastly, I agree a cable stayed bridge would be a magnificent structure. Certainly it could be structure that could frame the city on a scale, which some people have suggested, of a Sydney Opera House. I too wouldn't be opposed to opening it up to a worldwide design competiton.

Posted by Princess Caroline | February 3, 2007 6:06 PM

Princess Caroline makes sense.

FYI and FWIW, about a month ago I submitted a Public Disclosure Request to WSDOT for the studies and reports on which it based its conclusions about the "bay bridge" option.

It will be interesting to see what they find.

Posted by david Sucher | February 3, 2007 10:03 PM

"It will be interesting to see what they find."

Good job, David. Do let us know when you receive it. I do hope your request doesn't get buried.......


Posted by Jensen Interceptor | February 4, 2007 8:53 AM

I will post progress on my blog, Jensen.

I was told by WSDOT to expect some stuff this coming week.

Posted by David Sucher | February 4, 2007 9:23 AM

It's a good thing Carr doesn't live in West Seattle. Oh, wait, he does.

Never mind.

Visions of being trapped underwater in a lahar and subsequent tidal wave spring to mind ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | February 4, 2007 3:19 PM

"Unfortunately, its greatest problem is the multi-lane boulevarding of motor vehicle traffic on Alaska Way. Much like the current Viaduct, this will restrict the public from the waterfront..."

Don't you mean "more than the current Viaduct"? Because it's awfully damn easy to walk to the waterfront right now. The Viaduct is over our heads! But a surface option -- now *that* is going to cut off the waterfront from downtown.

Posted by litlnemo | February 5, 2007 5:05 AM

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