Councilmember Licata left office on January 1, 2016.
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Urban Politics #235: Alaskan Way Viaduct Update

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.  With assistance from 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.




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.


On May 29 the City Council approved an Urban Mobility Plan study, which will examine the future of the Alaskan Way Viaduct in the context of all the traffic which passes through downtown, in cooperation with the Washington State Department of Transportation and King County.

I supported this legislation for the following reasons:

  1. It will provide hard facts not vague promises in determining the viaduct’s future;
  2. It recognizes that we must make regional transportation improvements ‘first’ before we flood our downtown, and possibly I-5, with more vehicles;
  3. It focuses our energies on the substance of solutions, not on the design of those solutions.

The final version of the legislation included revisions I proposed to include an analysis of origin and destination data for all Viaduct users, and to maintain large vehicle access to downtown.

Our common goal should be to make Seattle more affordable and accessible for working families who rely on dependable transportation alternatives.

In the short term, it is critical that the Viaduct be retrofitted in the area adjacent to Washington Street, the most vulnerable area of the structure. This work will begin soon, and is why I am able to support the legislation.

The money being spent on the study is not new funding. It represents a re-allocation of unspent 2007 budget spending approved during 2006 budget process for Alaskan Way Viaduct planning that has yet to be spent this year. The money was formerly being spent principally on developing a tunnel to replace the Viaduct.


While this legislation will allow a surface option to be considered, it will also subject a surface proposal to a level of scrutiny and detailed analysis that has been absent until this point. I supported an earlier, smaller Council analysis of a surface street option, which reached a number of conclusions that will serve as a challenge a surface option must overcome in order to be acceptable. The study found:

a. A surface street replacement would result in greater pollution and congestion, and showed how streets with too much vehicle traffic quickly become pedestrian unfriendly, such as Aurora Avenue North.
a. By accommodating 110,000 vehicles per day, the Viaduct frees up capacity on the surface street system, providing flexibility for buses and cars
b. If Viaduct capacity were reduced, or trips diverted downtown, future decision-makers would have little flexibility for the surface street system to accommodate transit needs in the future, because the Downtown grid can accommodate about 20-30% of Alaskan Way Viaduct traffic during peak periods; once you get to 40-50%, you start breaching the capacities of the streets
c. Bus capacity is not simply a function of adding more buses to street space, since there is an optimal number of buses that can operate with the available curb space. Beyond that, additional buses degrade transit operations.
d. That cases where other cities have removed freeways have different conditions than present with the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and additional capacity available.
e. For southbound trips, around ¼ begin north of the City limits, and nearly ½ go to south of the City; about 1/3 goes to West Seattle
f. Over 60% of northbournd Viaduct traffic comes from south of Spokane Street, and 18% from West Seattle.

I put this information forward for two reasons:

  1. So that surface supporters head into this with their eyes open, and
  2. So that surface opponents realize this is nowhere near a done deal.

Through this study, we will find out whether a surface replacement is viable. If it isn’t, we’ll have to pursue another solution. Before the March election, I supported an elevated replacement for the viaduct. However, the election results were unfavorable for both the elevated and a tunnel. At this point, it is not politically feasible to move forward with either option before carrying out this analysis. The information we gather will inform a decision on another option if the surface option doesn’t work.

Whether additional trips can be accommodated on public transit, whether regional trips can be accommodated, whether freight traffic can be accommodated, and whether Downtown streets can handle additional traffic while remaining pedestrian-friendly will determine whether a surface solution is viable.

Keep in touch…

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Comment from Jan
Time September 16, 2012 at 7:19 pm

Thanks for this amazing post

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