As the Legislature in Olympia adjourned Wed., March 8, it voted to refer to the city of Seattle the question of what to do to replace Highway 99, the earthquake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct, along its waterfront run through downtown.
The Seattle City Council now has the choice of either recommending an option or referring the question to city voters; one or the other must be done by November. City Council members, who voted 8-1 in favor of the tunnel option two years ago, appear likely to put it on the ballot. And while election results won't be binding, for political reasons city and state officials are likely to go along with the option chosen by city voters.
At least two options—the tunnel or a replacement elevated, double-decker freeway—would doubtless be on the ballot. Hopefully, the City Council will include a third option—leaving Highway 99 at grade in the form of a waterfront boulevard. That's what San Francisco did, to widespread acclaim, when a 1989 earthquake destroyed the similar Embarcadero Freeway.
Of the three options, oddly enough, I agree for once with the developer-driven agenda of Mayor Greg Nickels, who has pushed hard for the tunnel. Nickels wants one of the country's most vibrant and attractive downtowns to have the crowning jewel it could have but now lacks: a real waterfront. He's right.
Would a tunnel (or, to a lesser degree, an at-grade Highway 99) be a huge boon for every property owner west of Western Avenue? Of course. For that reason, the city should consider creating a neighborhood taxing district, similar to what's been done in South Lake Union and elsewhere, so property owners cashing in on a public project contribute more to the cost of the project.
The tunnel option costs more—an estimated $3.1 billion to $3.6 billion, compared to $2.4 billion for a new viaduct, with the state claiming there's already enough money allocated to rebuild. But rebuilding the Alaskan Way Viaduct is preposterous. The viaduct was built 53 years ago, in an era when urban planners thought nothing of plopping a freeway down anywhere it looked good on a map, neighborhood consequences be damned.
A few years later, Seattleites came to their senses in time to stop the planned Thompson Freeway along the western edge of Lake Washington. An interchange for that ghost freeway is still visible on Highway 520 east of Montlake Boulevard. If that freeway had been built, and then damaged in an earthquake, there's no way today's Seattleites, or any urban planner, would choose to keep it in place.
The same applies for the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an open sore on a waterfront that could otherwise be an attractive promenade. The additional cost is well worth it, not just from urban planning and economic standpoints, but because a tunnel would last decades longer than a new viaduct. If Seattle can spare $1 billion for sports venues, we can surely tax ourselves to build a spanking new downtown waterfront, an amenity that would be enjoyed by many more of our region's residents and visitors.
The at-grade option is tempting, but it raises the question of what to do with traffic that now uses the viaduct. It can't simply be dumped onto surface streets and Interstate 5, encouraging still more downtown gridlock and clogging Alaskan Way with traffic. Also, I-5, already years beyond its intended lifespan, needs to be rebuilt all the way through Seattle. When that happens, I-5's traffic will need to go somewhere.
The tunnel option's biggest risk isn't the cost. It's the question of how hundreds of acres of newly prime downtown waterfront land will be used. You can see the danger by walking north on Alaskan Way, to the waterfront section west of Belltown where Highway 99 curves away from the water. That stretch has now been given over to a new conference center, a cruise ship terminal, and oodles of expensive new condos, with no pedestrian amenities at all. Closer to central downtown, the waterfront would be far more valuable. The city, especially Nickels' city hall, needs to create space for public enjoyment of Elliott Bay and resist the temptation to hand it all over to developers.
Fifteen years or so ago, I was opposed to then-Mayor Norm Rice's corporate welfare schemes to revitalize the downtown retail district. I'm still leery of extravagant public gifts to private business, but on the question of investing in our downtown, I was wrong. Downtown is now crowded with pedestrians all day and evening, and for visitors to the region it's one of the city's most attractive and alluring features. Rice's investment has already long since been paid off with the positive impact on our regional economy.
An Alaskan Way tunnel, opening up the Elliott Bay waterfront, could do the same thing. We'd be fools not to invest in it; the cheaper viaduct option is a false savings. The days of tolerating an ugly freeway walling off one of our city's most valuable assets are long, long over.