Councilmember Licata left office on January 1, 2016.
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Urban Politics #144: Alaskan Way Viaduct Update

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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.



  • Alaskan Way Viaduct Update
  • Revised Options
  • Funding For Environmental Impact Statement (Eis)
  • Funding For Project
  • My Analysis

Alaskan Way Viaduct Update

This edition of Urban Politics is an update on the Alaskan Way Viaduct. I’ll first give an update on events since August, then provide my perspective at the end.

In September, I organized a meeting with state Department of Transportation Secretary Doug McDonald and two engineers from Imbsen & Associates, a California firm specializing in bridge retrofitting. At the meeting, Dr. Roy Imbsen stated that a retrofit would be viable as an interim solution, and could be used for as long as 25 years, until adequate funding was gathered for a more expensive project. He estimated this could be done for under $500 million, and could be done gradually, as money became available, and used in the areas most in need.

In the November General Election, Referendum 51, the state-wide transportation measure, failed, receiving only 38.4 % of the vote. It received 47% King County, 37.5% in Pierce County, and 39.7% is Snohomish County. These are the three counties that are authorized to conduct a regional ballot measure later this year on transportation financing in the Puget Sound area.

Revised Options

Mayor Nickels and State DOT are now proposing four revised options for replacing the viaduct., which were presented at the Viaduct Leadership Group meeting (members are listed at ) and by Mayor Nickels in a press conference.

The options are similar to earlier versions, plus a new “surface” option. They range in estimated cost from $2.4 to $4.7 billion, with alternatives for further reductions. These are lower than the earlier range of $2.7 to $11.6 billion. Brief descriptions are listed below.

The cost ranges were developed using a 10 to 90% probability of covering project costs.

Each option includes:

· re-using the Battery Street tunnel;
· replacing most, but no longer all, of the seawall;
· a 30 foot wide promenade along Alaskan Way;

and no longer includes work planned at:

· Spokane Street;
· and Mercer Street in South Lake Union.


The tunnel estimate is reduced from a range of $10.1 to $11.6 billion, to $3.9 to $4.7 billion. This includes a temporary aerial structure, and includes re-connecting Mercer and Roy Streets over Aurora in the South Lake Union area (this discrete element is estimated at $290 million). The DOT identified a range from $100 million to $1.7 billion in further potential cost reductions. $4-5 billion was cut by removing the planned tunnel through lower Queen Anne and Belltown.


The aerial estimate is reduced from a range of $5.7 to $6.4 billion from $2.7 to $3.3 billion, with potential cost reductions from $100 to $675 million. This option would provide a structure wider than the current viaduct, with for example, shoulder space.


The rebuild estimate is reduced from $3.2 to $3.5 billion to $2.4 to $2.9 billion, with options to reduce costs from $100 to $450 billion. This option would replace the current viaduct as it is, and includes retrofitting the currently existing viaduct from the Battery Street tunnel to Pike Street.


At-Grade/Surface: This is a new option for a surface roadway to replace the viaduct, and is still being developed. It could involve, for example, six lanes traveling at 30 m.p.h. Part of the rationale for this option is in case the viaduct becomes unstable or otherwise unusable, immediate action would be needed.

Some elements of the options can be mixed and matched. The City DOT will be developing cost estimates to re-connect other streets in South Lake Union.

Funding For Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)

The DOT estimates a $20 million cost to complete the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Where the entire amount will come from is unclear. $1.2 million in state money is still available, and the City provided an additional $5 million. This will only be enough to fund the study through late Spring.

Other possible funding sources include the Puget Sound Regional Council and Federal money, but with the recent results of the federal elections, the expected $2.5 million may be reduced. The City will be lobbying the State Legislature for additional funds.

Funding For Project

A number of potential sources were listed in the Leadership Group presentation, from federal funding to the regional transportation ballot measure, Port of Seattle, tolls, a City of Seattle Local Improvement District, City Sales Tax Credit, and City utility money (i.e. Seattle Public Utilities, City Light). No specific figures were given.

My Analysis

My position is that we need to solve the immediate problem, which is the danger to public safety and transportation from a damaged viaduct. Further, we need to base viaduct work on what we can realistically afford.

I believe Referendum 51 served as a reality check for the $11 billion tunnel option. I am pleased to see it has been eliminated. This is a step in the right direction and toward common sense.

I am glad to see that retrofitting, which I have urged be given serious consideration, has been incorporated as an element of the rebuild option. I did not believe it had been given adequate consideration.

It is good to see the planners have developed an option in line with the rationale for the project, namely a potential emergency. However, I would like to see a complete retrofit explored as a separate option. We need to face the possibility that even the $2.4 billion alternative may prove too expensive, given fiscal reality. The three counties that can approve a regional transportation measure all voted “no” on R-51, so passage of any regional measure is by no means assured. Without passage of a regional measure, retrofitting could be the only viable option, short of tearing the viaduct down.

We need to be very careful with using any city utility money. While replacement of the viaduct would 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.

There are other large projects in the pipeline, in particular Highway 520, which is also vulnerable to earthquakes, according to state engineers. It won’t be cheap, and we need to keep this in mind in considering the viaduct.

It is also unclear whether the work previously included in the Viaduct project for solving the long-standing “Mercer Mess” and for Spokane Street has been completely eliminated, or just re-classified as a separate project. So it’s not entirely clear how much has actually been reduced from the options, or whether it’s just in another City plan.

Earlier editions of UP dealt with a resolution passed by the City Council in support of a tunnel replacement option, and a panel on the viaduct I sponsored in August.

Keep in touch…

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Comment from Mohammed Smulik
Time December 14, 2011 at 1:07 am

I haven’t checked in here for a while because I thought it was getting boring, but the last several posts are great quality so I guess I will add you back to my everyday bloglist. You deserve it my friend 🙂

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