Elevated problem

The Alaskan Way Viaduct must be replaced. Is Referendum 51 a good start?

THIS IS SEATTLE’S $11 billion headache: An ugly viaduct that’s crumbling into the sea; a seawall that is supported mainly by 68-year-old wooden beams, many of them eaten through by the marine worms that make their home along the city’s waterfront; and a series of replacement plans of increasing grandiosity, none of which includes a price tag or a funding scheme.

Referendum 51, the $7.7 billion statewide gas tax proposal that will be on the ballot this November, would direct a paltry $450 million toward replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the seawall along Seattle’s central waterfront. (For comparison, the Eastside’s megaproject, I-405, gets $1.77 billion from the package, though it carries just 100,000 cars daily, compared to the viaduct’s estimated 110,000). Cost estimates released last week indicate that replacing the viaduct will be more expensive than anyone ever imagined: from around $3.3 billion (for merely replacing the existing structure) to a staggering $11.6 billion (for the most expensive tunnel plan). A three-county regional plan still being ironed out by the King, Pierce, and Snohomish county councils may provide another $1.5 billion; tolls could bring in $500 million more.

That’s nowhere near enough to pay for the most popular replacement plan— a “cut-and-cover tunnel” that would place the viaduct underground along the downtown waterfront. The tunnel option, which arts groups and waterfront property owners favor because it would remove the unsightly elevated structure and open up the waterfront for parks and commercial development, would involve digging along the waterfront, building a highway underground, and covering the whole thing with concrete.

What is clear is that something has to be done. According to Tom Madden, viaduct project manager for the state Department of Transportation, an earthquake just slightly stronger or more prolonged than the 2001 Nisqually quake stands a 1-in-20 chance of “rendering the viaduct unserviceable” within the next 10 years. In the worst-case scenario, the loose soil underneath the viaduct could liquefy, causing the seawall to fail and taking the viaduct—which already lists 3 inches to the east—down with it like a row of trees knocked over by a storm.

ALTHOUGH EVERYONE agrees that the viaduct is a problem crying for a solution, not everyone is convinced that the statewide tax package is the way to solve it. Transportation Choices Coalition director Peter Hurley says $450 million “is not going to make any difference for the viaduct from a financial perspective.” He calls the state plan “a money pipeline that runs from Seattle to 405,” because half the money raised in Seattle would be spent on road projects outside city lines, with 405 the most egregious example.

There’s no question that Seattle gets the short end of the statewide plan, which consists mostly of road projects (extending state Route 167 in Pierce County, widening I-405 through the Eastside, and extending state Route 509 to Federal Way, for example) and a smattering of transit-related capital improvements. But given the urgency of the viaduct project, many Seattleites who might stay a good 10 feet from any such plan under ordinary circumstances are jumping, albeit reluctantly, on board.

Take Seattle City Council member Richard Conlin. Although he calls the statewide package “very, very unbalanced” between Seattle and the Eastside, Conlin expresses hope that its shortcomings will be rectified by the still-nascent regional plan. “Our goal is to have the regional plan balance the statewide plan,” he says.

Others worry that the regional package won’t be ready in time for a November vote, a concern that will grow more pressing as the three county councils hurtle toward a late-summer deadline for crafting the proposal. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who rarely met a transportation project he didn’t like, is hedging on whether he’ll support the statewide plan; his spokesperson, Marianne Bichsel, would say only that without a regional plan to supplement the statewide package, Nickels “would have a difficult time supporting” the statewide plan. “He would like to see the regional package on the ballot at the same time as the state package, so people can see what the benefits are going to be,” Bichsel says.

SO WHAT HAPPENS if we do wait? If the regional package doesn’t make it to the ballot this November, and if the statewide package fails in November, then the worst that can happen is another legislative session—and another wait—for legislators to put things right.

That doesn’t sound like the end of the world to folks like former state Sen. and state Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge, a West Seattle Democrat who plans to challenge Gov. Gary Locke in his next bid for re-election. “It seems very strange to me that this matter is on the ballot” in the first place, Talmadge says, given that the state Legislature had a chance to come up with a plan during its last session. Talmadge doubts Seattle voters will be willing to vote for a plan that doesn’t offer much for them anyway; and historically, as goes Seattle, so goes the rest of the state. So far, the statewide plan is polling at about 50-50 in Seattle, and “that’s the high-water mark,” Talmadge says. “If you’re at 50 percent now, the statewide package is in deep, deep trouble.”

Rushing forward on the statewide tax plan in the interest of “saving” the viaduct could have other consequences, Transportation Choices’ Hurley says. It could mean the state ends up moving forward on a plan that expands viaduct capacity—by adding downtown exits and widening tunnel capacity—without considering the impact that the monorail (which would run from West Seattle through downtown on a route that roughly parallels the viaduct) and tolls, expected to be between $1 and $3, would have on demand. Considering how many variables are still unknown, Hurley says, it could make sense to wait. “If all you try to do is meet [current] vehicle demand, you end up having to build lots of lanes and lots of exits for cars into downtown,” Hurley says, when tolls and transit may make that capacity unnecessary. “I’m beginning to move toward the view that it’s better to do it right than to do it fast.”