Urban Politics #189: Alaskan Way Viaduct Votes


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By City Councilmember Nick Licata. With assistance from my LAs Lisa Herbold & 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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Alaskan Way Viaduct Votes
Lease Lid In The University District
Public Poll Questioning The Mercer Project

Alaskan Way Viaduct Votes

The Council’s Viaduct Committee of the Whole met on Monday to consider four resolutions on the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

On the resolution to choose a tunnel as the preferred alternative for replacing the Viaduct the Committee voted 5 to 1 (Licata dissenting). That same resolution also lists other preferences, such as upgrading the Battery Street Tunnel, and lowering SR99/Aurora Avenue to allow the street grid to be reconnected at Mercer, Republican and Harrison Streets.

I recognize that the tunnel option has a number of urban design advantages over the rebuild option. For instance replacing the parking area under the viaduct with greater pedestrian amenities is an improvement. Likewise, eliminating the noise from an aerial structure would create a better environment. And the buildings now next to the viaduct would be either rehabbed or replaced, which would stimulate more economic activity downtown.

Nevertheless I voted “no” on this resolution because I believe it is too early to designate the tunnel at the “preferred alternative”. We do not have the money to pay for either option, our current projections show that the tunnel option will take longer to build and the tunnel does not provide any greater transportation efficiencies.

Let me explain these reasons briefly.

We are nowhere near having the funds to pay for even the less expensive “rebuild” alternative, estimated at $2.7-$3.1 billion. The cost estimate for the tunnel alternative is $3.4-$4.1 billion (more if the Mercer/Aurora work is included). The billion-dollar gap between the two is a sizeable amount of money, equivalent to twice the cost to build the current downtown bus tunnel or more than the total amount of public funds that went to build the new baseball and football stadiums. Even with the additional economic stimulation accompanying the tunnel option because of more development opportunities, there is no way that the tax revenue it generates will come near covering the funding gap between these two options.

That leaves the City looking to the Federal and State governments for financial support. Both the Mayor and I have been lobbying Congress to fund a special mega transportation package available for large metropolitan areas. Despite our efforts this legislation has remained stalled in Congress, largely because the President has not shown any interest in supporting it. I do not believe this attitude will change over the next four years because large cities, which all voted for Kerry, are not a constituency that Bush pursued in his election. With the Federal debt and the cost of the Iraq war growing and the continued resistance to any new taxes, the President does not need to fund new large urban projects. I do not see how Seattle will get a billion dollars from Congress by 2009, the date that construction is expected to begin on the tunnel.

Meanwhile the City’s chance of receiving that billion dollars from the State Legislature is zero and in reality even receiving the $2.4 billion to replace the viaduct will be a major challenge, despite it being a “state road” and not a city arterial. The legislators from the Seattle area, with leadership from Rep. Ed Murray who has chaired the House Transportation Committee and Rep. Helen Sommers who has chaired the House Appropriations Committee, will be fighting an uphill battle to get legislators from Eastern Washington to fork over that much money for a “Seattle” project.

Most likely they will attach requirements for funding other road projects in other parts of the state, which will drive up State spending. That will create a budget deficit unless taxes are increased. In other words, there will be pressure on the State Legislature to look at any other funding that the City might receive for replacing the viaduct, whether it is Federal or even local taxes, to supplant a portion of the $2.4 billion we would like to receive from them.

Because of my concern about funding, I introduced a resolution calling for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and the City Executive to develop a financing plan, which includes specific funding sources for both the tunnel, and rebuild alternatives. This resolution builds on the section of the Guiding Principles resolution sponsored by Councilmember Conlin, which calls for a “Viable Financing Plan,” including consideration of tolls and variable lane pricing during peak hours.

My resolution includes a request for options for financing both alternatives, including any public votes that may be needed if federal money is not appropriated or awarded by 2009, when construction is planned to begin. I think this is vital, because financial planning needs to be realistic, and the public should know as soon as possible if the City will be looking for Seattle residents to pay more in property or retail sales taxes to pay for the tunnel or the rebuild option. Councilmembers Conlin, Steinbrueck and Compton joined me in co-sponsoring this resolution, which passed unanimously.

Two other resolutions described 1) Guiding Principles for the project, and a 2) Safety and Transition plan. They passed unanimously. The “Emergency Closure Plan” element of the Safety and Transition Plan is particularly important, since it deals with alternate routes for freight and traffic in the event of an emergency closure. An updated version should be available early in February of next year.

The Full Council will vote on these four resolutions on January 10 of next year. WSDOT, the City of Seattle and the Federal Highway Administration will use the tunnel as the preferred alternative for a final EIS, targeted for completion in 2006. The rebuild alternative will also be studied as a contingency.

Lease Lid In The University District

The City Council voted recently to eliminate the much-debated University of Washington Lease Lid, (8 to 1, with Licata opposing).

Under a 1998 city-university agreement, the UW has been prohibited from leasing more than 550,000 square feet of space in neighborhoods surrounding the campus. This “lease lid” was agreed to during months of negotiation between the UW, the city of Seattle and the representatives of 11 neighborhoods surrounding the university (City-University Community Advisory Committee or CUCAC). The communities, the university and the city worked this agreement, with all parties making significant compromises.

I had a different proposal, supported by the area community organizations to raise UW’s lease lid and loosen the leasing restrictions. This compromise would have done a better job of balancing the University’s desire for flexibility in leasing off campus space with the community and City’s interest in mitigating the potential negative effects of unlimited off-campus leasing.

Specifically, my proposal would have lifted the lease lid to 750,000 square feet, with exemptions for going above that limit under two circumstances: for projects with 30 percent or more residential space; or if the UW leases existing office space not at ground level, thus keeping open street-level property for other uses that can contribute to the economic vitality of the Ave. This would have allowed for the construction of the equivalent of two new single-purpose leased research or office facilities of the same order of magnitude as the full-block sized Roosevelt Commons project. With significant exemptions in this proposal for existing non-street level space and for projects with 30% in residential use, projects like the controversial new UNICO project proposed at 15th Ave NE and NE 42nd would have been exempt.

Ultimately this approach would have allowed a great deal more new leased space to be built than the University has historically needed. At the same time, these exemptions would give the UW a real incentive to encourage mixed-use projects.

I do recognize that there are elements of the legislation that passed that are attractive.

The explicit protection of P1 and P2 zones from UW leasing is laudable; unfortunately these designations do not apply to the areas where the University is most likely to commission new projects. In fact, along the 11th Ave NE/Roosevelt corridor, mixed-use development is not required at all.

And after listening to the community, the Council did change the legislation to support restrictions on UW acquisition, leasing and/or control of the Battelle property.

The Council has wisely added requirements for data collection on the impact of lifting the lease lid. But simply collecting data is not enough. Unfortunately it does not require the UW to come back to the table to negotiate with the impacted communities. Without this requirement the City is allowing the UW to disengage itself from any required obligations to the neighboring communities.

While these are noteworthy and positive improvements over the past legislation, this agreement still abandons the spirit of and cooperation that began in 1983 and was later reaffirmed by the amended 1998 agreement, by shunting aside the involvement of the City-University Community Advisory Committee (CUCAC). For these reasons, I could not vote to support the bill that ultimately passed.

CUCAC was established under the city-university agreement and its membership includes representatives from the 11 university area neighborhoods, the University Chamber of Commerce and four university representatives. It exists to advise the city and the university on the orderly physical development of the university and the greater university area.

This agreement essentially excludes the 11 community organizations from the decision making process and leaves them without any leverage over the UW’s future actions. Instead of sending this issue to CUCAC for discussion and recommendation, as required by the city-university agreement, the City Council took it up for discussion. In doing so, the council excluded the parties with whom the UW has historically negotiated this issue.

Public Poll Questioning The Mercer Project

A new poll commissioned by about 30 Seattle residents shows that by a 2-1 margin Seattle voters oppose the City’s $150 – $200 million proposal to turn the Mercer Street corridor into a two-way boulevard to encourage new development at South Lake Union and to make this part of the city more pedestrian-friendly.

City studies show that these changes will not reduce traffic congestion or improve travel times between Seattle Center and Interstate 5 and may increase the number of congested intersections.

The poll specifically asked if given the backlog of repairs and basic maintenance for neighborhood streets, bridges and sidewalks equaling approximately $500 million, would individuals support the project.

The poll, conducted by Elway Research, found 55 percent of the 393 registered Seattle voters opposed the plan, 26 percent supported it and 19 percent were undecided. It has a 5 percent margin of error.

Last month, I introduced a bill that reallocated the $1.3 million in funding for the Mercer project Environmental Assessment to two bridge projects in the City’s Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). The 12th Avenue South – Jose Rizal Bridge Deck Repair is one of many unfunded major projects from SDOT’s 2005-10 CIP. Airport Way over Argo Bridge Rehabilitation is another similar project. These are the types of projects that make up the City’s $500 million transportation backlog. This bill did not receive the support of my colleagues who instead voted to allocate the dollars to the Mercer project Environmental Assessment.

Since 1990, the City has actually lost transportation revenue sources because the 1995 Supreme Court ruling that the Street Utility Fee as unconstitutional, in 2002 voter approved Initiative 776 eliminating the Vehicle License Fee from City revenues, and fuel tax revenues have declined more than 35 percent since 1996. The City’s options for transportation revenues are limited at this time, while the need for transportation infrastructure maintenance and improvement is growing.

As the condition of the transportation infrastructure deteriorates, it becomes significantly more expensive to repair or replace – effectively doubling every 10 to 15 years. I fear that using precious transportation dollars for a project that does not result in a transportation improvement will make it further difficult to convince state and federal decision makers to fund other more critical transportation Seattle projects.

Keep in touch…

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