Councilmember Licata left office on January 1, 2016.
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Urban Politics #136: Viaduct Cost & Neighborhood Gathering

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

With assistance from my Legislative Assistant Newell Aldrich.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.



  • Replace The Viaduct – At What Cost?
  • Upcoming Viaduct Meetings
  • Neighborhood Advisory Gathering

Replace The Viaduct – At What Cost?

The Council passed the Viaduct Resolution 30497 by a 7-2 vote (Licata, Nicastro) Monday afternoon.

The resolution, sponsored by Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, lists the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Project as a high priority, and lays out a set of principles to guide City actions on the project, such as addressing safety risks, phasing of construction, to funding and design. The resolution prioritizes an underground tunnel “to the maximum extent practicable and feasible,” for the portion along the waterfront, and to a portal north of Roy Street in lower Queen Anne.

There were two clauses in the resolution that I could not support at this time, so I voted against it. The first clause stated that the Alaskan Way Viaduct is “at serious risk of failure in a future seismic event”.

Certainly that may be true, as it is true that an earthquake of significant magnitude would cause damage to any of Seattle’s structures. The important question to ask is what is the probability of such an event occurring? That information was not provided the Council.

Councilmembers were told that there is a 1 in 20 chance that an earthquake could permanently close the viaduct if it occurred during the next 10 years, but it is unclear what is the risk that such an earthquake would occur in the next 10 years. I think this assumes an earthquake of 6.5-7.2 but it is not clear from the reports we have received.

In fact, I had asked the State for engineering reports detailing the exact threat to the Viaduct over a month ago and just received a partial response this past Friday. There is at least one additional report still due us on the need to replace the viaduct.

Questioning whether the Viaduct will fail in an earthquake may seem to fly in the face of such inevitability. But when I reviewed the latest report (7/12/02) by our Expert Team three questions remained unanswered as to why a retro-fit of the viaduct is not cost effective.

– What is the probability of a substantial earthquake occurring that would cause the columns supporting the structure to not be able to withstand a major lateral force?

– Some of the current problems are due to seismic events in 1949 and 1965, not just the 2000 earthquake. How much did the 2000 earthquake contribute to the problems? How much of the problems existed prior to the earthquake? The retrofit report says the 1.5 to 3-inch drift of the viaduct in one area likely occurred over time, “and is not entirely the result of the earthquake.”

– If the Viaduct is retrofitted, what are the estimated maintenance costs? Has anyone done a life cycle cost comparison of the various options to replace the Viaduct?

Aside from needing more information on what the practicality is for retrofitting the Viaduct, the other major concern I had with the resolution was its endorsement to build an underground tunnel along the central waterfront to replace the Viaduct.

Under grounding the Viaduct’s traffic would open up the waterfront to the rest of the downtown. This is an admirable objective for achieving a better pedestrian environment, encouraging more public open space and stimulating more business opportunities. But the question that we must ask is “At what cost do we get these benefits?” And more importantly, “How realistic is it that we will get the funds needed for under grounding the viaduct?”

The State Department of Transportation has identified five options other than retrofitting the Viaduct. They range in cost from $3.5 billion for rebuilding the Viaduct with some minor safety improvements to $11.6 billion for a 6-lane stacked cut-and-cover tunnel along the central waterfront. The other tunnel option costs $10.3 billion.

All of these figures use the same formula: inflation escalation as to their approximate midpoint of construction date, and they reflect a 90% probability that the cost will not be greater. And all options include the cost for replacing the central waterfront seawall that has also been identified as a structure that could fail in a major earthquake. Its cost is estimated to run between $.8 and $1.2 billion.

Cutting to the quick, tunneling will cost about $7 billion more than rebuilding the Viaduct. No one has identified a source for those funds.

Currently the amount of funds available for the Viaduct is zero. If State Referendum 51 passes in the November general election, a little less than a half a billion dollars will be available. If a regional proposal goes before the voters at a future date, the amount that has been discussed is approximately $2 billion. But that includes revenue of a half billion dollars from tolls. And a recent study determined that tolls levied on just segments of a transportation grid, like one road or bridge, rather than on the entire region’s transportation grid, is likely to collect much less in revenue than initially thought since many drivers will take a non-tolled road as an alternative.

A preliminary forecast projects a range from $6-9.5 million in annual toll revenue (in 2014) if only the viaduct has tolls, to $8-15 million in annual revenue if other routes have tolls.

So if we look at the possible funding sources that are lined up right now, we still fall short about $1 billion for a rebuild, but if we pursue the tunneling option then the shortfall is $8 to $9 billion. The response from the proponents has been, “We’ll build it in sections.” This is the exact same logic that has shrunk the Sound Transit Rail System from a regional system to a Seattle system to a south Seattle system. If you divide up a large capital-intensive transportation project small enough, you will get something that can be funded. You will also get something that falls far short of a functional transportation improvement.

If this incremental approach is taken with the Viaduct, I predict we will get a 6-lane tunnel for the waterfront and bottlenecks at the north and south ends. Only those with property abutting the waterfront will see any advantages, while the rest of the businesses downtown will see increased congestion.

There are three other main transportation improvements that are also being sought in the Viaduct options proposed. The first is to rebuild a new Spokane St. interchange and surface roadway to Holgate St. This improvement will address our freight mobility problems in our largest industrial sector. The second is to reconstruct the elevated Viaduct structure from Holgate St. to King St. This is a safety issue and will need to be addressed whether the Viaduct is under grounded or not. The last improvement addresses the long standing “Mercer Mess” traffic congestion by reconnecting the lower Queen Anne and South Lake Union neighborhoods through a common street grid near south Lake Union.

Each of these three elements has value. What the City needs to know is what the cost of each of them is. As currently presented they are bundled within the cost estimates. I’ve asked our City Central staff to break them out so we can assess whether we could pursue them separately from tunneling if need be.

The bottom line for me is that we need to determine what is the actual probability of the present viaduct failing in an earthquake. If such an occurrence does present a clear and present danger then we should carefully evaluate all of the options on a cost-benefit basis. Until additional and reliable funding sources are identified, I believe that rebuilding the viaduct rather than burying it is the primary candidate for achieving a cost-effective solution to replacing the viaduct.

Upcoming Viaduct Meetings

The “Leadership Group” for the viaduct project will be meeting Tuesday, July 23. The meeting will take place at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Avenue (at Seneca Street), from 4-6:30 p.m.

The Leadership Group is composed of local elected officials, and representatives from government agencies, neighborhoods, non-profits, the private sector and labor. The Leadership Group is an advisory group and sounding board to the State and City Departments of Transportation developing the viaduct project.

A complete list of members is listed at the State Dept. of Transportation website at: . They are expected to suggest a preferred alternative at this meeting. This alternative would then likely be listed as the preferred alternative in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) (other options will also be analyzed).

There are a series of open houses on the viaduct project taking place soon; they are listed at: . The public will have the opportunity to submit comments at these meetings.

Wednesday July 24, 5-8 p.m., Port of Seattle Atrium, Pier 69 (presentation at 6 p.m.)

Thursday, July 25, 5-8 p.m., Gatewood School gym in West Seattle, 4320 SW Myrtle (presentation at 6:30 p.m)

Tuesday, July 30, 5-8 p.m., B.F. Day Elementary School gym, 921 Linden Ave. in Fremont (presentation at 6:30 p.m.)

In addition, the City Council will meet as a Committee of the Whole for the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Project on Monday, July 22.

Neighborhood Advisory Gathering

I will be hosting a Neighborhood Advisory Gathering of the City Council Neighborhoods, Arts & Civil Rights Committee this coming Saturday, July 20, from 10 a.m. to noon, at the Nordic Heritage Museum, at 3014 NW 67th Street.

This is the second advisory gathering this year. In March, the first was held at Garfield Community Center; later, another one will be held in the south part of town. As Chair of the City Council’s committee dealing with neighborhoods, a key goal of mine is to involve neighborhoods in all aspects of City government. That’s what these meetings are for.

The focus of this gathering will be the City Budget in Neighborhoods and Libraries. City Librarian Deborah Jacobs will be speaking, as will a representative from the Department of Finance.

There will also be time for questions and answers, as well as time for you to say what’s most important to you in city government.

For directions or more information call 206-684-8803.

Once again, here are the specifics:

Saturday, July 20
10 a.m.-Noon
Nordic Heritage Museum
3014 NW 67th Street

(information about the previous gathering is available at the Urban Politics archive at

Keep in touch…

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