After 20 Years of Debate, Contract Signed to Replace Viaduct With Tunnel

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Come hell or high water, it looks like a deep-bore waterfront tunnel will be built to replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct. Yesterday the Washington Department of Transportation signed a $1.09 billion contract with Seattle Tunnel Partners, an international construction consortium scheduled to complete the project by December 2015.

It was a well-orchestrated event. Dozens of orange-vested union construction workers were strategically placed in the Port of Seattle's waterfront offices. Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond and representatives from Seattle Tunnel Partners--Fernando Gonzalez-Alcaniz and Jack Frost--were flanked by a bevy of local notables, including half the Seattle City Council, State Representative Judy Clibborn, State Senators Mary Haugen and Scott White and Port of Seattle CEO Tay Yashitani, as the trio put their John Hancocks to the contract.

Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond signs the contract with the dynamic duo of Fernando Gonzalez Alcaniz and Jack Frost from Seattle Tunnel Partners.
Noticeably absent at the signing was Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, who has been the tunnel's most identifiable opponent. His office was contacted and he had no immediate statement.

Dragados, S.A, a Spanish-based construction firm which has experience building large-bore tunnels, and Tutor Perini Corporation, a California-based firm specializing in civil and building construction, are the two heavy hitters. Local subcontractors Frank Coluccio Construction and Mowat Construction have been included as Northwest eye candy and will assist. According to WSDOT, up to 5,000 jobs will be created at the height of construction--a statement that drew significant applause from the aforementioned union types.

The total cost could reach up to $1.4 billion if incentives are reached, which include bonuses for Dragados/Perini if the tunnel is completed ahead of time. The big dig is just part of the larger overall process of replacing the viaduct, a process which will likely cost over $4 billion.

"With this contract, we are confident that the tunnel will be built within budget and delivered on time. More than 90 percent of the design-build work will be performed for a fixed price," Hammond assured, reading from a prepared statement.

A feeling of let's-hurry-up-and-get-this-done-already permeated the signing. Had there been picks and shovels on the premises, there probably would have been a mad rush across the street to start digging then and there.

As it is, work is already underway to tear down the viaduct's First Avenue ramp. The southern portion of the elevated roadway is scheduled to come down in 2012. And it won't be long before this marriage is consummated, as Dragados/Perini contractors will begin moving into WSDOT offices in downtown's Wells Fargo Building on Monday.

It's been nearly 10 years since the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake damaged the viaduct. And it's been two decades since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco first showed the risk of collapse for elevated freeway structures during major seismic events.

With all the time spent debating the issue--dozens of public meetings, hundreds of news articles, and thousands of hours of public testimony--there's a definite sense that tunnel fatigue has overcome politicians, the media, and average citizens alike. Now that the contract has been signed, it's almost a fait accompli. The tunnel will be built and any question over funding, lawsuits, or design flaws will be dealt with as they come.

It doesn't help that tunnel opposition is fatally fractured into two warring and mutually exclusive camps.

On one hand are fiscal conservatives opposed to a $4.2 billion "Big Dig" project, fraught with cost overruns, that won't add any significant transportation capacity. Their solution is to either rebuild or retrofit the 60-year old structure.

And on the other are the radical environmental types banging the bongo drum for a "Surface Street Alternative" which would dump 100,000 cars and semitrucks onto the streets of downtown Seattle. The theory is that if you make commuting so rotten for motorists, they'll give up their Mother Nature-killing internal-combustion machines and take public transportation instead.

In March 2007, Seattle residents voted no and no on a confusing, poorly crafted ballot measure which was in effect an opinion poll on whether to build a new elevated roadway or a cut-and-cover tunnel.

True to form, and fulfilling Seattle's need for engaging in direct democracy, two new ballot initiatives to stop the tunnel are being tendered for approval. I-101 hopes to prevent the state from using city right-of-ways, while the other, I-102, ostensibly protects the city from being stuck with paying for cost overruns. Seattle Citizens Against the Tunnel (yes, the acronym spells SCAT) already has over 22,000 signatures, which should be enough to put I-101 to a vote.

Elizabeth Campbell, with SCAT, admits that there is a certain amount of fatigue, and added that tunnel proponents are relying on opposition to simply give up.

"The challenge is that the state will already begin digging, and they're banking on the idea that they can skate around the vote and ignore legal issues that are coming," Campbell said.

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