Councilmember Licata left office on January 1, 2016.
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Urban Politics #271: Transportation Projects & Funding

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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.





In the February 2007 election, both the tunnel/surface and the elevated options to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct were voted down. Since March 2007 the Washington State DOT, Seattle DOT and King County/Metro have worked together with a Stakeholder Advisory Committee to form options to replace the Viaduct portion of SR 99, which the Governor says will come down in 2012. The agencies expanded the study area from the Central Waterfront to the Seattle city limits on the south end, and North 85th in the north end.

They released eight options in June of this year: three surface options, two elevated, and three tunnels. In November, they released cost estimates as well as a number of other “building blocks,” designed to complement the SR 99 work, such as widening I-5 downtown, increasing transit, and various surface street projects downtown such as adding transit lanes downtown.

Earlier this month, they released two “hybrid” options. One is a surface replacement estimated at $3.3 billion, the other an elevated replacement estimated at $3.5 billion. The cost estimates include several “building blocks” as well as $1.1 billion in work to the south of the current Viaduct and on the Battery Street Tunnel.

In short, the elevated option provides faster travel times, while the surface option provides more transit and open space, and shorter construction time.


The elevated option would replace the current 6-lane Viaduct with two side by side two lane Viaducts. It is the least expensive of the options that bypass downtown (tunnel & elevated). In South Lake Union, it includes a new underpass at Republican. The option includes:

$1.66 billion, replace Viaduct and seawall replacement (SR 99 portion)

$103 million changes to I-5

$267 million transit

$234 million city surface streets

$20 million operations cost for transit

The surface option would convert Alaskan Way and Western into 3-lane one-way streets to replace the Viaduct. It is the best-performing of the surface options. In South Lake Union, it would include 5 signalized crossings over Aurora, and 28 stoplights in a new SR 99 corridor along the waterfront. The option includes:

$929 million, replace viaduct with Alaskan/Western couplet and seawall replacement (SR 99)

$553 million changes to I-5

$476 million transit

$216 million city surface streets

$40 million operations cost for transit

At the City’s request both options include a two-way Mercer from I-5 to Elliott, the Spokane Street Viaduct project, and a streetcar on 1st Avenue from Mercer to King Street.

The Governor, Mayor and County Executive are expected to make a joint recommendation by the end of December. This is where finances come in.


The Viaduct project currently has $2.4 billion in hand. The Governor has stated the state will contribute $2.8 billion and no more. The state legislature would need to act to add back $400 million, the amount it shifted to the 520 project last year. The State legislature could also take action regarding the use of the $2.4 billion.

Thus, either the total packages for both options need to be cut, or other funding sources located.

There aren’t many good options. Much of the state funding is from the gas tax, which can be used for transit during construction, but not after. So the amount the state can contribute for operations for bus service or a streetcar line is likely to be limited in the long run, unless the state legislature changes state law.

One possible option is a transportation benefits district, based on legislation passed by the state legislature in 2007, which allows for a car tab fee of up to $20. A district in Seattle could conceivably raise over to $10 million per year. This could make a significant difference for bus operations, but wouldn’t make much of an impact in constructing a streetcar, or in covering the capital costs for road projects.

The state also has another big local project on its plate: the 520 bridge replacement has an even bigger funding gap than the Viaduct. There are three 520 options, estimated from $4.5 to $6.7 billion. Funding plans estimate $3.3 to $4 billion available, including $1.3 to $2 billion from tolls on 520. This and other projects limit the state’s flexibility.


Both Viaduct options include a two-way Mercer from I-5 to Elliott to the west of Queen Anne hill. This would expand the current $200 million “Phase 1” project that goes from I-5 to Dexter to include a Phase 2 from Dexter to Elliott. SDOT estimates a lower end cost of $25 million for Phase 2; Phase 1 is well short of full funding (see UP #262, 267).

The choice of Viaduct options will likely affect travel times in the Mercer corridor area for South Lake Union. Adding the 5 crossings on Aurora included in the surface option would provide better Mercer-area travel times than the elevated option, which includes one Aurora underpass. Some travel times for the surface option may well be better than under current estimates, which don’t assume the Aurora crossings. Then again, travel times for the current street grid would be better if you added the 5 crossings to what we have now.

I’ve asked SDOT staff whether Aurora crossings could be done without the Mercer Project, and they’ve said yes, so there isn’t an intrinsic connection between surface crossings over Aurora in South Lake Union and the rest of the Mercer Project, much less the Viaduct project.

That said, there is a trade-off here. Crossings on Aurora in South Lake Union provide faster travel times in South Lake Union, but slower travel times on Aurora.

The $183 million Spokane Street Viaduct project, already approved and underway, would widen Spokane between West Seattle and I-5, and provide for new exits that would assist bus service. It’s absolutely necessary, unlike the Mercer Project. And even with it, estimated travel times from West Seattle will increase due to the new configurations for the Alaskan Way Viaduct.


Many assume the Waterfront Streetcar is coming back; six of the eight November options included it, funded 100% by the State. However, the two hybrid options do not include a waterfront streetcar, but rather a streetcar on 1st Avenue from Mercer to King Street. It’s unclear how it would be paid for at this point. The cost estimate included in the Streetcar Network Development report was $180 million for construction, and $20 million for vehicles, along with $4.5 million for annual operations (it was then called the “Central” Streetcar).

Two of the eight options included both streetcars, because they serve somewhat different areas, due to the elevation difference between the streets.

A 1st Avenue streetcar would likely produce impressive ridership figures, since it would collect riders who currently use Routes 1 and 2 from Queen Anne to Downtown. Routes 1 and 2 combined draw over 2 million annual riders in the Queen Anne to Downtown portion alone, and are among the very best-performing Metro bus routes in terms of riders per hour and the percent of operations covered by fares.

However, neither Viaduct option includes operations funds for a streetcar. This raises the possibility that the source of operating funds would be Metro bus hours allocated to Seattle, which could result in less overall transit service. The Streetcar Network Development report said a 1st Avenue Streetcar could require Bus 1 and 2 riders to transfer to a streetcar, so the quality of the trip might not be as good. That’s why I proposed amendments described in UP #270 addressing this possibility.


Earlier this month the Mayor announced that 500,000 riders have boarded the South Lake Union streetcar, in a year of service. The original estimate was 330,000-380,000 riders per year. For a route with service every 15 minutes, this has a long way to go before equaling other central city bus routes.  70,000 of the riders were from December 2007, when it was free.

Under the City-King County Metro operations agreement, when Sound Transit light rail service begins in 2009, Metro will fund 75% of the operations costs. The City anticipates this will come from bus service hours. Metro staff estimated revenue needed to fund 36,000 hours of bus service would be freed up due to duplication of light rail service; Metro estimated revenues equivalent to 16,800 hours of bus service would be needed for streetcar operating costs. I voted no (see UP #237).

Metro is currently examining how South Seattle buses can be re-configured to feed into light rail; my understanding is that some additional hours have since become available to the 36,000 total for other reasons.


I hope all are enjoying the holidays as much as possible given our weather. I’m in touch with the other Councilmembers on how to improve the City’s response to the snow storm that has crippled the city. And I hope to address that issue in the next UP.

Keep in touch…

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