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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Re: The Tunnel Is Dead

posted by on January 17 at 18:41 PM

It looks like at least one version of the Alaskan Way tunnel—the six-lane cut-and-cover tunnel preferred by the city council and Mayor Nickels—is off the table. The four-lane “tunnel lite” drawn up at the last minute by Nickels and council transportation chair Jan Drago, meanwhile, is on life support. What’s still unclear is how the city council will respond to Gregoire’s latest ultimatum: Build a new, larger elevated freeway or the state will yank the $2.2 billion it provided to replace the viaduct.

There are, despite appearances to the contrary, a few options. The council could decide to give in to Gregoire and build a massive new elevated freeway on the waterfront. That option, however, is immensely unpopular among most council members; only two, David Della and Nick Licata, support it. Opting for a new viaduct, meanwhile, would open the state to the possibility of massive lawsuits from downtown businesses and potentially from the city of Seattle itself; the city council has already adopted a resolution stating that the proposed rebuild violates state and local law (including the city’s own Comprehensive Plan and the state Shoreline Management Act), opening a clear avenue to opposing the rebuild in court. Council member Peter Steinbrueck, who sponsored that resolution, says “massive litigation” is “the most likely result of trying to force a rebuild on Seattle.” Viaduct reconstruction would require the city, at the very least, to move utilities and provide construction support; if the city withheld its assistance, the replacement viaduct would founder.

Another, less likely, scenario is that that council could move forward with a vote in April (most members feel the March vote favored by Gregoire as of two weeks ago would be too soon to put together a coherent, legally sound ballot measure and launch a campaign) between the rebuild and the new four-lane cut-and-cover tunnel. Council member Tom Rasmussen, for one, still hopes the city will reach a compromise that will allow this to happen. “We need to stop this brinkmanship and try to reach some kind of agreement with the state on how we’re going to make this decision, and I would hope that it would allow us to choose between a tunnel and the rebuild,” Rasmussen says. However, there are many reasons this scenario is unlikely. First, the vote would probably favor the rebuild anyway, if polls can be believed. Second, at least four members of the council (and probably five, a majority) now oppose a public vote. Third, unless it was really overwhelming, a pro-tunnel vote wouldn’t force Gregoire and the legislature to do anything. They could, if they chose, still redirect the $2.2 billion currently slated for a viaduct replacement to fixing 520, as they have threatened to do.

That brings us to our final scenario, in which we have a vote, the tunnel wins, and the legislature does yank the money. (The council could also choose to reject the rebuild and let them take the $2.2 billion without a vote. Some, including Steinbrueck, favor this scenario. Politically, though, that seems unlikely, especially with five council members up for reelection this year.) What then? The city still has $200 million from the federal government; it could choose to use that money to tear down the viaduct and come up with local funding to implement the surface/transit option. Much of the work for that option will have to be done while Alaskan Way is under construction anyway; as Steinbrueck notes, there are “a thousand very practical, sensible things we could be doing right now” in the Alaskan Way corridor, including new bus service, upgrades to Spokane Street, and surface-street improvements. Highway 520, he says, “needs it far more urgently anyway, and they have a much bigger [funding] hole.” Even if the surface/transit option had won out, its supporters note, the state would never have provided the billion dollars or more needed to pay for it; that money would have had to come from city and county sources under any scenario. “I feel like [the Washington Department of Transportation] picking up their toys and going home is the best possible scenario,” People’s Waterfront Coalition founder Cary Moon says. “If the state won’t support ‘tunnel lite’ and they won’t let us use their money for it, the city’s going to have to design and fund the solution themselves.” But that will only happen, Moon adds, “if people have the courage to say we can solve this problem locally. But we’ve been talking about car capacity for so long people may be afraid of living without a highway.”

Gregoire’s announcement today was a surprising turnaround for a governor who, just two weeks ago, insisted in no uncertain terms that the city hold an either-or vote between the six-lane tunnel and the elevated rebuild. “I’m a little confused as to why the governor says [the tunnel] is dead, given that the governor is the one who asked for a vote back in December,” council member Sally Clark says. “There’s such a finality to this announcement.” Some speculated that Gregoire simply didn’t want to wait until April for a public vote, because it could create the appearance of still more delay in a project that’s already been on hold six years. However, Rasmussen notes, “it’s hard to see how waiting until April creates a problem for the state or for this project.” Others say Nickels’s tunnel numbers just didn’t pencil out. But because the four-lane scenario is so new, it seems it would be impossible to tell whether the numbers were good or bad; the six-lane tunnel, in any case, was much more expensive, and Gregoire wanted a vote on that. It’s also possible that Gregoire feared that enough voters would support a cheaper four-lane tunnel to edge out the rebuild; then she’d go down in history as the governor who tried to force on Seattle an elevated freeway it didn’t want. And changing positions so radically at the last minute, whatever her motivation, makes Gregoire look fickle and indecisive.

The council has a special meeting scheduled Friday to discuss a potential ballot measure. Steinbrueck is dead set against it. “We don’t need an emergency meeting on legislation we haven’t seen,” he says. Licata, for his part, says the meeting will go forward. However, he adds, “if no one shows up it won’t happen.” Unless at least five council members are present (a quorum), the meeting will not go forward, and a March vote will be out of the question.

RSS icon Comments


I wish someone would point out that the sense of urgency to replace the viaduct has been created not by the damage from the Nisqually quake, but by WSDOT's opportunistic use of the minor damage sustained by the structure during that event to justify a long-sought megaproject to increase capacity through that corridor (and keep a bunch of WSDOT road-builders employed). Take a look at the entirely-too-minimal information WSDOT has provided about the semi-annual inspections they've been doing on the structure since 2001. The issue with this structure is entirely about a small section directly across from Colman Dock. Has WSDOT shut that section for a short period of time to accomplish the necessary repairs, at a cost of perhaps a few million? No - they've been too busy drawing up plans for a massive replacement of the entire structure.

Posted by Ryan | January 17, 2007 6:55 PM

Upgrade/retrofit - maybe now we'll suddenly get much lower cost numbers for the fix we should have done years ago.

And I don't think Seattle can tear down a State Highway with Federal funds - ECB isn't there a snow story you could report on?

Posted by Kush | January 17, 2007 7:13 PM

Eff the WSDOT engineers -- let them take their money and screw up the 520 project.

BTW, has anyone else thought it odd that the Gov. seems to have forgotten how close her election was and that the only reason her nasty mug is in office right now is because of the good people of Seattle (well, and the fact that Dino Rossi is a weenie..)???

Posted by GoodGrief | January 17, 2007 7:16 PM

LOL!!! Oh my, I remember right after the earthquake in 2001 (that was the day after the riots that Mayor Schell slept through) everyone was saying that our NUMBER ONE priority (yes, numero uno!) would be to replace the viaduct. Six years later and not a damn thing has been done. Moral of the story? If you have to be on the viaduct make sure it is north bound and not south bound.

Posted by Andrew | January 17, 2007 7:28 PM

OK, I give up... why is it you continue to not mention the retrofit as an option at all, even though it's the only one that matches the budgetary and legal constraints?

Posted by Hal O'Brien | January 17, 2007 7:38 PM

Please, God, don't let them rebuild that monstrosity. Anything but a rebuild.

Posted by Sean | January 17, 2007 7:39 PM

Tear that schitt down.

Posted by catalina vel-duray | January 17, 2007 8:09 PM

#3 let's see Gov backs Seattle boondoggle - price up to $6B by 2008 - rest of state and at least half of Seattle opposed the project - ya that would be good for re-election - but instead she acts in a prudent way gets the viaduct done or stands up to the SCC and nothing gets done and what? the residents of Seattle vote for Rossi - don't think so.

Frank Chopp dreads the idea of the dems running in 2008 with Seattle's Big Dig for the repubos to use against them statewide - the tunnel is fiscally irresponsible (sing it to the tune of simply irresistible)

Posted by Kush | January 17, 2007 8:15 PM

I'm looking forward to suing the city and state if they don't keep the capacity in place. They don't have any transit now, and they'll impact tens of thousands of people with the surface option. It will be quite simple to form a Ballard/West Seattle group that will throw monkey wrenches into the surface option. Couple that with politicians running for city council looking for cover (and a bunch of them are already feeling the heat) and it will be fun times.

Posted by Dave Coffman | January 17, 2007 8:52 PM

O'Brien asks a good question. Why does Barnett (it's getting comical) refuse to even mention the Retrofit?

Answer: She knows in her heart that it is the only solution which makes sense politically and financially and even in terms of urban design.

How do I know? I read her posts and only someone scared of the Retrofit would so studiously refuse to acknowledge it.

Posted by david Sucher | January 17, 2007 9:38 PM

The City Responds (Kaboom!)

Statement by Mayor Nickels and Councilmember Drago

The contents of a statement issued by Mayor Greg Nickels and Seattle City Councilmember Jan Drago on Olympia's Viaduct announcement

January 17, 2007

SEATTLE — We are deeply disappointed with the announcement today by the Governor and legislative leadership. After asking for a public vote, the leadership in Olympia is now saying they are not interested in the opinions of Seattle citizens. Instead, they are threatening to impose a new elevated freeway or, even worse, taking state funding away from the most dangerous section of highway in the state of Washington. No other city in the state has been treated in this manner.

It is clear that Olympia is not interested in a real solution to the Viaduct replacement. The proposal for the Surface/Tunnel Hybrid offers a more cost-effective, environmentally-sound transportation solution that will save over $1 billion compared to WSDOT's inflated six-lane alternative.

Olympia has arbitrarily rejected the Hybrid solution and ignored the advice of their own Expert Review Panel. Their assertion that the Hybrid Tunnel had not yet been validated rings hollow in light of the Governor's order that WSDOT stop working on this proposal last Friday.

The voters of Seattle have a clear expectation that they will be given honest choices; that their voices will be heard; and their choices respected.

This is a choice about the future of our city, not about politics in Olympia. We will move forward with our plans to put the question on the ballot and let the people of Seattle decide the future of our city.

We will follow the will of the people of Seattle, not the dictates of Olympia.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

Posted by Mrs. Y | January 17, 2007 9:40 PM

So Nickels says he’ll accept the result of a public vote. Then Tim Ceis says a rebuild is dead.

And it’s the Governor who’s fickle and indecisive?

Nice story, Ms. Ceis. Or is it Nickels?

Posted by Cold Hard Truth | January 17, 2007 10:26 PM

Confidential to Nickels and Drago: nice suicide note!

Nominations for the Crassest Comment of 2007 are now closed. The winner, from the aforementioned suicide note, goes to Greg Nickels, for his reference to “WSDOT's inflated six-lane (tunnel) alternative”.

Uh, that would be *your* alternative, Mr. Mayor! Remember the, uh, last five years and stuff? Nice job, and have a happy 2007!

Posted by T-Rex | January 17, 2007 10:35 PM

Greg - you're playing poker with the wrong people - Chris eats multinationals for breakfast, and Frank's stood down radical rightwing majorities for years.

Time to wake up and smell the lack of a do-over.

Posted by Will in Seattle | January 17, 2007 10:52 PM

Memo to Jan and Greg - maybe it's because no other City in the State has dithered so long on behalf of such an indefensible and expensive project, or has threatened to tear down and not replace an essential State highway.

Ryan - you're right to a point, but WSDOT always preferred the tunnel replacement. They just got real about the costs of the two respective projects before the City did (as if it has).

BTW - when do you think the $500+ million proposal to lower SR99 north of Battery Street for Hallivulcan's Mercer scheme - a project that has been lumped in with all of the AWV options in the EIS but that has no connection to the AWV or Seawall - going to come off of the table? Nickels, Drago, and the Tunnel cabal still plan to piss our tax dollars away planning for it and beginning pre-construction even though the project is unfunded.

Now there's some BS that citywide taxpayers get to subsidize (On the other hand, to rebut another post you did on a separate thread, keeping West Seattle and Ballard moving seems perfectly reasonable to share to cost of to me).

Posted by Mr. X | January 17, 2007 11:00 PM

BTW, WSDOT were far from alone in their cynical motives behind creating a false sense of crisis about long-held plans to get rid of the AWV - you can add most of the City Government and Downtown business players to that list, too.

I'll be charitable and put the Allied Arts/PWC/Stranger types into a perhaps slightly more idealistic and less cynical (but dare I say considerably more delusional?) category of others who also exaggerated quake risks to support a longtime anti-AWV agenda.

Posted by Mr. X | January 17, 2007 11:10 PM

“The city still has $200 million from the federal government; it could choose to use that money to tear down the viaduct and come up with local funding to implement the surface/transit option.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong—a thousand times wrong.

The Viaduct is part of a State highway. The City cannot tear it down. Only the State can.

The City does not have $200 million in Federal money to use for the surface/transit option.

The federal money does not go to the City, first of all. Secondly, it is not funny money that can be spent willy-nilly on a non-highway project. Third, the federal transportation bill was a commitment—has the money even been allocated yet? Don’t think so.

So, in sum: the City has $0 in Federal money to use for the surface/transit option.

Posted by Fact Checker | January 17, 2007 11:20 PM

ECB - don't go all stenographer on me now. Mayor's release went out at 6:08 PM. You posted "Gov's fickle" 30 minutes later.

Gov's not fickle, she gave 2 non-negotiable options for a vote 2 weeks ago. She knows that people haven't been using this time to pursue this and were instead negotiating an option that wasn't on the table while pushing back on the session-end deadline she gave. She's not fickle, she's fed up.

Posted by LH | January 18, 2007 12:09 AM

Damned straight she is. Can't say I blame her.

Posted by Will in Seattle | January 18, 2007 12:32 AM

re: #9 Anyone who would actually look forward to suing the city and state (over the life-and-death matter of reduced highway capacity!) definitely needs to get a life and probably needs to get laid.

Posted by Explorer | January 18, 2007 9:49 AM

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