Urban Politics #183: Replacing The Viaduct


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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

With assistance from my L.A. 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.

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Replacing The Viaduct
Boards And Commissions Meeting Room Listen Line

Replacing The Viaduct

The replacement of the existing Alaskan Way Viaduct (AWV) looms as the largest transportation project Seattle will have ever seen, potentially more than twice the cost of the proposed monorail. The Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has narrowed further consideration of the five construction options it has studied to just two: the rebuild option costing about $2.7-$3.1 billion, and the full tunnel option for about a billion dollars more. The cost gap between the two is roughly equivalent to the combined cost of the Seahawks and Mariner’s stadiums. Each option would take multiple years to complete, ranging from 6-8 years, with the rebuild option appearing to be about a year shorter than the tunnel.

WSDOT is involved because the AWV is a state highway that serves as a critical commuting and commercial transportation corridor for not only for the city and this region, but also for the state. For example, much of eastern Washington’s farm produce is shipped out of Seattle’s port. Trucks carrying those goods use the AWV, and its replacement must continue to accommodate that function. The AWV also serves as the second main north-south arterial into Seattle, which serves as the hub or a region that has accounted for half of the state’s job growth.

Given the importance of avoiding a structural failure of the AWV when another major earthquake strikes Seattle, the City and the State have been working together to review the various replacement options. The City has been formally briefed by WSDOT at our Council’s Transportation Committee meetings, chaired by Councilmember Richard Conlin. Recently, State Representative Ed Murray, who serves as the Chair of the House Transportation Committee has hosted informal gatherings of state legislators and councilmembers. The Mayor and WSDOT have also attended.

Such a meeting was held yesterday morning and I attended. Below are some of my impressions of how the various above parties are approaching this most challenging project.

The Mayor began off for the City and summarized a previous meeting that he and the other Councilmembers had attended to work out some guiding principles. Overall the Council and the Mayor strongly favor the tunnel option over the rebuild option. I continue to express reservations about this approach given the huge cost difference between them. I would feel much more comfortable if our discussions about replacing the AWV were more focused on how we intend to find the funding rather than on having the design options lead our discussions.

Support for the tunnel in city hall is driven more by the economic development opportunities it presents for Seattle’s waterfront than for any superiority it has over the rebuild option as a transportation solution. Both have about the same capacity.

But a tunnel would free up the current right-of-way under the viaduct, presenting a multitude of possibilities for more public open space as well as more commercial and residential development. Without a doubt the tunnel would stimulate development and contribute to the city’s property tax revenues.

No analysis has been done to date to estimate what that potential revenue stream might be. Of course that additional revenue would have to be balanced against the additional public expenditures that a tunnel would require beyond the rebuild option. Without a net revenue projection, we are dependent on anecdotal examples of what has occurred in other cities when similar structures were removed to open up downtown waterfronts.

Consequently emphasizing the tunnel option over the rebuild option begs the question as to whether it is “worth” it, beyond the esthetics of obtaining more public open space. While I do support that objective, and I believe just about everyone in Seattle would as well, such a justification may not win over state legislators from outside Seattle. And that was the impression I got from listening to those legislators who attended yesterday’s meeting.

One House member said that we cannot divorce the discussion of design solutions from financing solutions. Another added that justifying state support for a new viaduct cannot rely on how it benefits downtown Seattle, instead the broader role it plays in supporting the state’s economy must be paramount. Another said we should build what we need and not go cheap since it will be with us for a long time to come. Unfortunately, as one key legislator concluded, he does not see the votes right now for either option.

Even if the state contributes $2 billion, which would be the most it has contributed to any single transportation project, we must still find another one to two billion dollars. The Mayor has been lobbying the Congress in the hopes of getting a mega-transportation project bill passed that could help fund this and similar projects in a handful of cities around the country. I have been pursuing the same effort through the National League of Cities lobbyists. But the federal legislation has stalled in Congress and will most likely have to be reintroduced next year. Consequently, I do not see how we can rely on it in our financing plan.

For now the discussions will continue between the various public bodies. The public will be invited to express their preferences on the options for replacing the existing viaduct on Monday October 18th in the Bertha Landes Knight meeting room in City Hall. The meeting begins at 5:30 p.m., with an open house until 6 p.m., and public comment beginning at 6 p.m. The Bertha Landes Knight room is on the 1st floor, just off the City Hall entrance on 5th Avenue between Cherry and James.

Boards And Commissions Meeting Room Listen Line

The City of Seattle Boards and Commissions meeting room now has a public telephone listen line. Up to 24 callers at a time can call 206-684-4718 and listen to meetings taking place in the City Boards and Commissions meeting room.

The Boards and Commissions meeting room is located on floor L2 of the Seattle City Hall building, at L280. A number of City boards and commissions meet there regularly, including the Design Commission, the Planning Commission, and the Women’s Commission.

The City Council funded the listen line in the 2004 budget process. I sponsored the proposal. The funding comes from cable television franchise fees. City policy states these fees should be used to provide citizen access to City services.

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