Councilmember Licata left office on January 1, 2016.
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Urban Politics #231: What is to be done with the Viaduct?

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

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.




From the March 13th election one can conclude that the majority of Seattle voters are not happy with either a tunnel or a new elevated viaduct replacing the current Alaskan Way Viaduct. Of course adjustments to both plans could be proffered in an attempt to keep them alive.

The State, City and King County have agreed to some short-term retrofitting of the Viaduct, upgrades to the Battery Street Tunnel, building a new State Route 99 from Holgate to King Street, and other improvements totaling around $900 million. This work will take place from 2007 to 2012. The target for a solution for the downtown waterfront is the next two years.



Although the hybrid-tunnel only received a thirty percent “yes” vote, the pro-tunnel forces could offer a couple of new designs to address that optionâs biggest problem – cost. A new bored tunnel further east, perhaps under Western Avenue, or a tube laid down on Elliott Bay, could be pursued in hopes of coming in at under the hybrid-tunnel’s cost, which was $3.4 billion at a minimum.

However, since neither tunnel alternative was considered as one of the five options explored in the State’s EIS, such a proposal would mean another supplemental Draft EIS and at least another year. And the state would still have to undertake extensive new engineering designs to get to a 5% design completion level to be able to offer a minimum cost estimate. The hurdles seem significant and after leaping over them, the cost is till likely to be at least as high as the hybrid-tunnel, based on their significant engineering risks and the later start date. In other words, without significant Federal or State assistance or a locally approved bond measure, any tunnel measure appears as dead as you can get.



Those favoring a new elevated Viaduct also face significant challenges. Viaduct proponents can argue that the half-million dollar campaign against the elevated significantly distorted the facts so that if better information were made available the public might come around to supporting a new Viaduct.  For example, that a new Viaduct as large as that depicted in the opposition’s campaign photos would be limited to the three blocks south of Colman Dock, where there is no retail activity, and not across the entire length of the central waterfront as was implied in the hit piece.

But campaigns are made of simple messages and powerful images, and once they become embedded in the public’s mind, they are rarely if ever replaced.

It could also argued that a better, slimmed down design for the elevated has not been adequately pursued. Perhaps the lanes could be reduced in size or a flexible shoulder version, like the proposed hybrid would result in a more satisfying elevated solution. But since the State engineers so strongly opposed the hybrid’s design, it is unlikely that they would reverse themselves and approve it for the elevated.

Unless the elevated were to be drastically changed, like actually reducing a lane or two, or eliminating the ramps into and out of the middle of Downtown, the elevated will remain what it is: big and obstructing development opportunities along the eastside of the waterfront.



Meanwhile two other options are waiting in the wings: a surface highway and a retrofitted Viaduct. The City Council hired DKS consultants to review the surface option and they concluded that it would result in more pollution, greater congestion, and showed how streets with too much vehicle traffic quickly become pedestrian unfriendly, such as Aurora Avenue North:

Critics charged the consultants used WSDOT data that they consider unreliable. But that is the only data available, unless one wishes to conduct an all new data collection process, which would take years to validate trends. In other words, the data is the data.

One misconception about a surface option is that it is cheap. The State estimated the cost at about $2 billion, or about two-thirds the cost of a rebuilt Viaduct. Statements made by some State officials suggest that the State would cut about a billion dollars in funding for any surface option since the capacity would be greatly reduced for this State highway, greatly increasing any costs to the city of Seattle.

Nevertheless, a surface alternative remains very much alive. Although last fall only about 15% of those polled supported this option, many of the pro-tunnel supporters see a surface option as more acceptable than a rebuilt Viaduct and are willing to support it. If all of the pro-tunnel voters were to move over to supporting a surface alternative, there could be wide-spread support for that option, provided there could be consensus on what type of surface configuration. Currently there are some strong divisions between those who prefer a smaller four lane configuration and those for are drawn to the more robust six lane option.

The State’s EIS showed that traffic speed with a 6-lane surface option would average about 12 miles per hour in both directions. At that speed, the surface option would be safe for pedestrian and bicyclists, but the amount of tail pipe emissions would exceed an elevated pollution levels.

Neither a four lane nor a six lane surface option will be able to accommodate the 110,000 vehicles currently served by the Viaduct. Consequently, more traffic will be diverted over to the already congested I-5 and through downtown. The debate centers around how much will be diverted and how much will disappear. Some believe that anywhere from 20 to 30 % of those currently driving single-occupant vehicles on the Viaduct would switch over to transit or car-pooling.

This range appears to be pretty consistent from the experiences of other cities that have removed highways similar to the Viaduct in the center part of their towns. However, each city has a different grid and terrain so comparisons cannot be made lightly. The Council is likely to spend another $500,000 studying a surface option attempting to determine how many vehicles and trips could be reduced and under what conditions.



The last major option that has been discussed, and even predates the Nisqually earthquake of 1995, is retrofitting the Viaduct. State engineers have steadily increased the estimated cost for this fix from $300 million before the quake to just under $2 billion as recently as this past January. And while they believe that the Viaduct can be made safer, they do not believe that the cost is worth it nor very practical. Engineers independent of WDOT have consistently argued that the cost is significantly lower. But until the WDOT engineers agree, I doubt whether the Governor will approve a total retrofit.

Ironically, the retrofit approach is one that many support as a temporary stop-gap measure. It provides more time to develop a more comprehensive transit system to accommodate those willing to forego driving on the Viaduct and therefore allows for the opportunity to remove it sometime in the future. The Governor has even recommended some immediate emergency retrofit work on the Viaduct to address the public safety issue of the Viaduct failing during an earthquake. She will retrofit the weakest area on the Viaduct at Washington Street and the Viaduct from the Battery Street Tunnel to Lenora Street. However, she has also said that she wants to begin tearing it down in 2012.



Whatever option is chosen, the construction period will stretch out for years and the economic impact to the central business core will be severe. The only way to mitigate this impact is by preparing for it now, by taking some immediate measures to institute both transit improvements and traffic management measures.

While a number of transit proponents have been saying that we must build a Seattle with more mass transit options, I have not heard of any details from anyone on what the next steps should be. In order to help focus the discussion I’m suggesting that we take the following measures.



We need to immediately bolster our bus system since we will not have a fixed rail line to West Seattle and Ballard for the foreseeable future. That means more bus service in the city, particularly those routes that will be affected by the Viaduct construction. But just adding more buses will not be sufficient. Repeated studies show that predictability is the foremost attraction of fixed rail over bus systems. That’s because rail lines have a dedicated right of way. In order for buses to provide enough predictability, they must also have dedicated right of ways, so that they do not get caught in traffic congestion. A light-rail system is still years away, so there is no other short term transit solution.

Providing dedicated bus lanes means that the City of Seattle must be willing to convert auto lanes to bus only lanes and to also make capital investments in new bus lanes. We may have to realize that new bus lanes may be needed to be built as add-ons to the West Seattle Bridge and the Ballard Bridge. But those are longer term investments. For the short term, we need to look at what can be done within the next two years. We need to provide speedy and predictable bus service before the Viaduct corridor is closed.

In particular we should be looking at First and Third Avenues. For example, First is one of only two downtown streets that go through the entire central business district. It stretches from Denny St. to Spokane Ave. It is too narrow, in places like Pioneer Square, to accommodate any increase in auto traffic. But if the entire street was dedicated to bus service, it could provide the necessary link to the West Seattle community in order to accommodate their need to have access to downtown. Third Avenue is currently “transit priority” during rush hour, allowing cars to travel only one block before turning right.



We need to also begin a traffic management program that introduces congestion pricing and restrictions on accessing downtown. In pursuing these strategies we need to be cognizant that Seattle downtown has probably the highest concentration of low paying jobs in the state. There are a huge number of security workers, maintenance staff, retail sales clerks, office assistants, and hotel and restaurant employees, all working in our downtown. Most of these jobs do not provide a wage high enough to live downtown or own a home in Seattle. That means they are very dependent on either their auto or public transit. If we begin to restrict auto traffic we must have a bus transit system that far exceeds our current one. Otherwise we will be penalizing low-income workers.

One strategy that was employed in Auckland, New Zealand, was to issue numbers to cars, one through five, that entered their city. From Monday through Friday, one of the numbers would not be allowed admittance. The traffic was immediately reduced by 20%. With enough advance notice, such a system might work. Workers could arrange to car pool once a week or take public transit once a week. Such a system would encourage commuters to consolidate their after work activities, like shopping or business trips, into the days that they drove their car into town.

Whatever steps we take to accommodate the impact of constructing a replacement of the Viaduct, we must begin to implement them within the next two years. That means that the City must work cooperatively with the County and the State in seeking not only additional funds for making capital improvements and increasing bus service, but also in acquiring legislative authority to implement ordinances that can regulate auto traffic into our central business district.

By taking this approach now, we can hopefully begin to focus on the substance of what we hope to achieve with a Viaduct replacement rather than on what form a new Viaduct replacement should take.

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