Urban Politics #211: Alaskan Way Viaduct Update

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.  With assistance from my LA 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.



  • KING-5 Poll
  • Tunnel & Costs
  • Large Projects
  • Utility Costs
  • A Public Vote?
  • Retrofit Study


King-5 Poll

A recent public opinion poll of Seattle residents conducted on March 15, 2006 shows that over 60% of those polled share my concern that a tunnel is too expensive to pursue and would rather see the Alaskan Way Viaduct rebuilt.

The survey found that if cost was not an issue, a tunnel was favored over a similar highway 49-43%; once told the $1 billion higher cost, a similar highway was favored 61-35%. 69% oppose utility rate increases to fund a tunnel; 70% oppose a property tax increase to fund a tunnel.

The poll was conducted by SurveyUSA for KING5-TV, and can be viewed at http://www.surveyusa.com/client/PollReportEmail.aspx?g=a3eb1e34-41d9-44af-9430-227d2de9dbd9

Tunnel & Costs

Like most, I too would prefer a tunnel if the Federal government was willing to pick up the cost. Unfortunately, the Federal government has pulled back from significantly funding urban transit and road projects. As a result cities like Seattle must depend on State Legislatures and residents of their city and suburbs to pay over 80% of the costs. The State has provided enough money to rebuild the Alaskan Way Viaduct but not to build a tunnel. The additional one billion for the tunnel would have to be paid through an increase in local taxes, utility rates or the diversion of funds from other infrastructure projects to be completed.

The current cost estimates are $3.7-$4.5 billion for the tunnel, $2.6 to $3.1 billion for a rebuild, and $3.0 to $3.6 billion for a reduced “core” tunnel, and $2.0 to $2.4 for a “core” rebuild. We have $2.45 billion, enough for the core rebuild, but not for a tunnel.

Large Projects

I am skeptical that the difference would be only one billion. Most projects of this size and complexity run over budget. For example, King County’s Brightwater Sewage Treatment Plant is almost 10% over budget and construction has yet to begin. Light rail, the monorail, and currently the Fire Facilities Levy have all gone over budget. We need to know who will pay any cost overruns.

If The City ended up on the hook for any cost overruns, even a cost overrun of only 5%–not bad for a project of this size–could have an enormous impact on the City budget. There is no agreement on who would pay for cost overruns.

Factors beyond local control can have a large impact on project costs. With the Fire levy, cost escalation in the construction industry was the principal cause; with the monorail, the world price of steel played a role, due in part to construction in China. And with light rail, cost estimates for the Capitol Hill tunnel proved too low.

The contracting mechanism will also be important as well. The Seattle Monorail Project used a fixed price design-build contract mechanism. This allowed the public to see in advance whether there was enough money to build the project, and put a stop to it. Will we have the same opportunity here?

Utility Costs

We need to be very careful with using any city utility money. While replacing the viaduct will require utility relocation work, any work needs to be done so that it does not soak ratepayers by paying for anything beyond the necessities for the utilities.

I asked City Light and Seattle Public Utilities how much it would cost to replace the utilities in conjunction with the project. The combined cost estimates range from $128 million to $568 million. I asked for the difference in costs between a rebuild and the tunnel alternative, but have yet to receive that information. This is critical information that the public needs to have before we commit to the more expensive tunnel option.

A Public Vote?

According to state engineers the structural condition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct is at significant risk of permanently closing if not collapsing should we experience another earthquake similar to the 2001 Nisqually quake. Since then, the viaduct has settled by 4 inches. Another two inches and engineers say that the Viaduct must be replaced pronto to ensure public safety.

Consequently, we need to act as soon as possible to replace the structure. Last year I said that if the City had not acquired the needed funding by this fall, then we should proceed with the rebuild. Then this month, the State Legislature passed legislation saying something similar. They require the City Council to pass an ordinance to choose between a rebuild and a tunnel, or hold an advisory vote asking our citizens to choose.

And while I do prefer the rebuild option, I support an advisory ballot. I would also like to see a third option of just offering a surface solution. By offering all three options to the public, I believe that we could finally put this matter to rest and move on to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. I have drawn up a resolution to proceed with that approach and expect to have it discussed at CM Jan Drago’s Transportation Committee meeting on March 28th.

Retrofit Study

I earlier explored whether it was possible to retrofit the existing viaduct.

I held a public forum in 2002, and organized a meeting between an expert in bridge retrofitting and State Secretary of Transportation Doug McDonald, who agreed to study retrofitting in greater depth. The report was released in 2003, and found that retrofitting the Viaduct would be only slightly less expensive than the least expensive rebuild option but would have a shorter life span.

UP 154 contains additional information.

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