Blog Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement: Keep Tunnel Option Alive

Since the recommendation came Thursday Dec. 11 from Washington State Department of Transportation, King County and Seattle officials that the wobbly Alaskan Way Viaduct through downtown Seattle on State Route 99 should be replaced with either a surface boulevard system and more transit, or another elevated roadway, the reaction has been remarkable.
Remarkable because of how much support is being voiced for an option planners have essentially rejected for now, a deep-bored tunnel. Let’s survey some of the blowback, which is only likely to grow. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s editorial board today writes:

…several troubling questions have arisen. Does a new, elevated structure really deserve to be one of just two finalists, with its massive commitment to autos and prospect of sealing the city off from its waterfront for perhaps the entire 21st century? For the surface option’s waterfront boulevards, why do planners envision stoplights at virtually every block? Can even the most technologically advanced traffic signal synchronization system keep traffic flowing through all those intersections?
Most important, why have government officials tried to eliminate any longer-range option for eventually drilling a deep-bore tunnel should the surface plan wind up quickly overwhelmed by traffic growth? With boring technology advancing significantly, costs may be less than anticipated. And financing mechanisms, such as a regional tolling system, may change the feasibility of a tunnel for the better in the not-too-distant future, if not immediately.

A year-long review of ultimately eight semi-finalist options – conducted with advice of a special Stakeholders Advisory Committee (SAC) – preceded Thursday’s winnowing. Next comes a recommendation from Governor Chris Gregoire, King County Executive Ron Sims and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, before the legislature makes the final choice in its Winter 2009 session.
Last Thursday after project consultants unveiled their two finalist choices, the SAC held its own discussion and 24 or 25 members either supported the deep-bore option being built or further examined. SAC member Vlad Oustimovich wrote a guest essay in the West Seattle Blog, stating:

The rebuilt viaduct option has been deemed unacceptable by both downtown and environmental interests, and the surface solution is unacceptable to both the business community as well as all of the commuters that depend on the Viaduct to get to their jobs….Neither of the two options offer a solution that will garner support from a broad base of constituents, and will undoubtedly once again lead us into acrimonious debate, dividing the region and stalemating the process.
…we all recognize that the most important thing is to maintain our ability to get around….We need to maintain our transportation capacity. The bored tunnel, although slightly more costly than a rebuild is a good investment.

Another SAC member, Pete Spalding, also penned a reaction for West Seattle Blog. Spalding wrote:

Under the (surface-transit option) if you leave West Seattle and drive through downtown going to north Seattle you will encounter 28 stop lights, a 90 degree turn to proceed through the Battery Street tunnel and a 30 mile per hour speed limit…I am not convinced that another elevated option will solve our transportation needs 50-plus years into the future. This is our opportunity to make Seattle a world class city with a world class waterfront. Building another elevated structure running along the waterfront does not help to accomplish that.
I lean toward the hybrid (tunnel and surface-transit) solution that has been brought forward by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce…I also encouraged the Executives to give a much stronger look at the deep bored tunnel option…..I am not convinced that the cost estimates have been thoroughly vetted and are somewhat exaggerated in materials that we were presented.

The West Seattle Chamber of Commerce has also written to the three execs, in support of the deep-bored tunnel option.
Writing in Crosscut is Bruce Chapman, president of our parent organization, Discovery Institute, and a former Seattle City Council member.

..a new Viaduct would represent the worst throwback to poor design in the history of the city and qualify Seattle for architectural booby-prizes for years to come. Such short sighted, single-purpose transportation thinking would consign the harborfront to blight and economic stagnation. After literally three decades of criticism of the present Viaduct, the region would inexcusably replicate the error for our posterity….the all-surface option will fare little better….As mitigation, there are some good ways proposed to improve traffic flow on downtown streets and expand transit use. A new lane squeezed out of I-5 would help, and is needed anyhow. But there is no reason to think such mitigation would begin to suffice in soaking up the existing (SR) 99 traffic flow. It would be an ironic environmental “improvement” that resulted in more clogged, polluting traffic tie-ups on the waterfront.
Even before an all-surface outcome is tested in practice, City, County and State will have agitated the already restive business, trade, and labor communities that consider politicians to be insensitive to what is required to make trade and commerce work on a waterfront. And – just to rev up the lawsuit and initiative process with real passion – the many Seattle area people who merely want to get through the downtown bottleneck as quickly as possible are going to be indignant over the prospect of start and stop, cheek by jowl traffic along Alaska Way.

Richard Carter of Seattle also highlights the importance of an SR 99 downtown bypass, in today’s Seattle Times letters to the editor. More grave doubts about the two proposed finalist options, and endorsements of the tunnel, in the comment string at the end of this post at the blog, My Ballard.
The fallout is clear. Leading business and labor organizations, as well as international tunneling experts based in Puget Sound and neighborhood leaders, are voicing support for the deep-bore tunnel option, coupled with deep concerns that last Thursday’s recommendations are inimical to mobility, commerce and quality of life.
A sentiment to “just do something soon” does not alone make for good public policy. Especially not when a region’s economy and the usability of a city’s downtown waterfront are at stake. The sooner that business and the neighborhoods can be made to feel that their interests are truly being addressed, the sooner a replacement for the Viaduct can actually be built.
UPDATE: The P-I’s “Strange Bedfellows” local politics blog reports that the Port of Seattle passed a motion late this afternoon supporting retention of the bored-tunnel alternative.