Urban Politics #220: Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Votes


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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.

CONTENTS:

  • ALASKAN WAY VIADUCT REPLACEMENT VOTES
  • WSDOT COST ESTIMATES
  • PREFERRED ALTERNATIVE
  • ANTI-REBUILD ORDINANCE
  • PUBLIC VOTE MEASURES
  • FUNDING AGREEMENT RESOLUTION
  • SUMMARY STATEMENT

 

ALASKAN WAY VIADUCT REPLACEMENT VOTES

The City Council today (9/22/06) passed a series of bills about the future of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Today’s Council votes included:

  1. Passage of an ordinance designating a tunnel as the preferred alternative; (7-1)
  2. Passage of an ordinance against an elevated highway along the waterfront; (7-1)
  3. Voting down two resolutions calling for a public vote (7-1)

The Council voted first in committee, then in Full Council. They delayed the vote on a resolution calling for a funding agreement between the City on the State on who would cover funding shortfalls or cost overruns.

I voted “no” on the ordinance which would proceed with the tunnel option and eliminate an elevated highway option. I voted in favor of a public vote and an agreement on cost overruns. I introduced the funding agreement measure and one of the public vote resolutions.

 

WSDOT COST ESTIMATES

Earlier this week, WSDOT (The Washington State Department of Transportation) released revised cost estimates for the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Project. The estimates were only for the “core” alternatives for a tunnel and a rebuild, not for the “Full” option. The “core” option does not include work to the north of the Battery Street Tunnel, such as lowering Aurora and connecting streets in South Lake Union. The Full option includes all this, as well as a complete seawall, the “core” option stops the seawall rebuild at approximately Union Street.

The 2005 estimates were $3.0 to $3.6 billion for a “core” tunnel, and $2.0 to $2.4 billion for a “core” rebuild of an elevated structure. The new cost estimates are $4.63 billion as the “likely” cost for a core tunnel, with a range from $3.56 to $5.54 billion. The estimate for a rebuild is $2.82 billion as the “likely” cost, and a range from $2.20 to $3.34 billion. These estimates do not include financing costs.

In summary, the likely cost on the core tunnel option increased by 40% or one and a third billion dollars. The likely cost of the core elevated rebuild option increased by 28% or $620 million. In other words, the increased cost of the tunnel is double the new elevated structure’s increased costs.

WSDOT did not perform new cost estimates for a Full Tunnel or a Full Rebuild. The 2005 estimate for a full tunnel was $3.7 to $4.5 billion, $2.7 to $3.1 billion for a full rebuild. It is reasonable to expect a Full Tunnel would now be more expensive. If the same factor applies, then the likely 2005 full tunnel cost of $4.1 billion would now be $5.7 billion.

The new cost estimates were ordered by the Governor, in response to the recommendations of the Expert Review Panel, released August 31.

 

PREFERRED ALTERNATIVE

The Council passed an ordinance adopting the tunnel alternative as the preferred alternative by a 7-1 (Licata) vote. Della was absent due to a personal matter, but has said that he would have voted against it. The ordinance also states opposition to the rebuild alternative, and says that if a tunnel “proves to be infeasible,” the City recommends development of a “transit and surface street alternative.”

The ordinance calls for the Full Tunnel alternative, which includes work to the north of the Battery Street tunnel. There is no updated WSDOT cost estimate for this alternative, but as I estimated above using their current factor of increase, the Council is endorsing a close to $6 billion dollar project.

I introduced an amendment calling for the “core” tunnel to be the preferred alternative. It failed by a 7-1 vote. Even though I do not support a tunnel, the Full Tunnel is even less viable than the Core tunnel given its huge expense. It would have been a step in the direction of fiscal sanity. I believe we are sending a message to the state that we are price deaf.

A companion resolution sponsored by Councilmembers Richard Conlin and Peter Steinbrueck will be introduced and up for a vote at next Monday’s Full Council meeting on September 25. Its intent is the same as the passed ordinance, with additional detail.

 

ANTI-REBUILD ORDINANCE

The Council passed an ordinance against a rebuild by a 7-1 (Licata) vote, listing city policies that would oppose an elevated replacement. I voted “no.” The ordinance also states the Council’s intent to pass a comprehensive plan amendment against an elevated highway. It is highly unusual that this took the form of an ordinance, a formal law, rather than a resolution, a statement of policy, when the Council has yet to even hold a hearing on the comprehensive plan amendment.

The state Growth Management Act states that “no local comprehensive plan or development regulation may preclude the siting of essential public facilities,” which raises doubts about how effective this ordinance would be. I believe this ordinance serves only to obstruct progress in replacing the viaduct. And every day we delay this project is close to a one million dollar price increase in its costs.

 

PUBLIC VOTE MEASURES

There were two measures calling for a public advisory ballot. The first called for a vote on the tunnel vs. an elevated structure, the second was a proposal of mine that called for an up or down vote on the tunnel. I proposed this because a tunnel is the most expensive option by far; once eliminated, we could then figure out what is the best option.

I intended to propose an amendment to the tunnel vs. elevated measure adding language noting the tunnel cost at least $1 billion more than an elevated option. This seemed reasonable given that the difference in the “likely” cost estimates for the core options is now $1.8 billion. It was clear there was little support for a ballot measure, so I didn’t make a motion for a vote.

I voted “yes” because I thought a ballot measure was reasonable, given that this is Seattle’s most expensive public works project ever. In the past, Councilmembers have said that since the Monorail Project was so expensive the public needed to vote on it, and now these same Monorail watchdogs are suggesting the public would be too confused to vote on this even larger public works project.

The ballot measure failed by a 7-1 (Licata) vote.

My up or down on the tunnel measure failed by the same vote.

 

FUNDING AGREEMENT RESOLUTION

I have long been concerned about potential cost overruns. My inquiries to SDOT and WSDOT have not yielded clear answers.

In pursuit of clarity, I proposed a resolution calling on the Mayor to negotiate an agreement with the state specifying who would pay for any funding shortfalls, cost overruns, or be liable for property damage or bodily injury.

This followed from the recommendations of the Expert Review Panel (ERP), appointed by the Governor to review the Viaduct and 520 projects. The ERP recommended “that stakeholders identify-early in the process-how increases to the cost of the project will be handled.”

The ERP report also noted “major concerns” about the cost estimates, which led to the Governor ordering new cost estimates. The report also noted the average cost overruns for mega-projects is more than one-third of a project’s estimated cost.

Councilmembers Steinbrueck and Conlin intend to introduce a resolution Monday which addresses some of the points brought up in my resolution, albeit with milder language, so there is some overlap. I agreed to hold this resolution until Monday, so that both versions can be compared.

It is encouraging that there now appears to be agreement on the Council in favor of some acknowledgement of fiscal realities.

 

SUMMARY STATEMENT

I understand the desire of the other Councilmembers to have an “open waterfront” with more pubic open space. And I certainly support such a goal. But I believe that the Mayor and the Council are going down a deep hole, both literally and figuratively. The claim is that the current viaduct stops people from visiting the waterfront, when in fact each year over twenty million people visit it. The viaduct is noisy, but audio experts have testified that the noise can be cut in half. The viaduct does cast shadows, and so does every building over seven stories – we live in a metropolis, not a village. Finally the five environmental goals identified in the Central Waterfront Plan can be accomplished with a rebuild of the viaduct; it does not have to be removed.

Some Councilmembers say that the viaduct was a mistake, but it is has been an roadway allowing efficient and effective access to Seattle’s downtown business core as well as through it – something that neither the tunnel nor a surface option accomplishes. If the tunnel does get built, we will be depriving over 100,000 people a day a view of Elliot Bay, stick them in a hole and then charge them (via a toll) for the pleasure. I can understand why the Council and Mayor decided not to place the tunnel on the ballot. The voters would be confused by the logic of such a proposal – they would vote “NO” on a tunnel option.

Go to the Seattle Channel Website of the Council Meeting to view the debate and vote on these measurers: http://www.seattlechannel.org/videos/watchVideos.asp?program=COW

Call the Seattle Channel if you cannot locate it: (206) 684-3493.

Keep in touch…

 

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