Governor Gregoire seems intent on painting herself into a rhetorical corner with her adamant refusal to seriously consider any option for replacing the Alaska Way Viaduct that doesn’t include a massive, double-decker freeway running through Seattle’s waterfront. Which is really a shame, because the surface-plus-transit alternative is shaping up to be a political compromise in which nearly everybody could claim victory… even the Governor.
Make no mistake, the surface option is gaining ground. The Governor may have successfully torpedoed the political viability of Mayor Nickel’s tunnel, but that has only resulted in rebuild opponents coalescing around a single alternative. A sure sign of this shifting momentum was the raft of public statements made by legislators earlier this week warning that a surface solution could cost Seattle taxpayers a pretty penny.
A rebuild, we are told, would be entirely financed by the state, but the surface option might draw only a fraction of the state funds already committed to the project. This was intended to scare Seattle voters into choosing the devil we know, but it was unintentionally revealing. First, it shows that even Olympia’s rebuild proponents now take seriously the surface option’s political viability. Second, it put forth a lower range — a billion dollars — from which the city can now negotiate the state contribution. Somewhere between $1 billion and $2.8 billion dollars… that’s how much we can expect from the state for a surface-plus-transit solution.
And I’m guessing the final figure would be closer to the middle-to-high end of the range. Rebuild, tunnel or surface, the state still has to tear down the existing structure, modify ramps to and from the Battery St. tunnel, and rebuild both the seawall and the elevated structure from the 1st Ave. ramps to the West Seattle Freeway. We constantly focus on the 2-mile stretch across Seattle’s downtown waterfront, but that’s only part of the project, and thus part of the costs. There is a political argument to be made that state taxpayers should not be expected to pay the bill for all of the local surface and transit improvements such an option would entail, but I’d be surprised if the state could get away with less than a $2 billion contribution.
But by ignoring the growing momentum towards a surface solution the Governor risks blowing political capital on a fight that at best, might earn her a Pyrrhic victory, for as much as she now pooh-poohs the public vote she once called for, voters in this state take their plebiscites seriously. A close vote might be easily dismissed as inconclusive, but should voters overwhelmingly reject a rebuild, the Governor’s tough stance puts her in the position of either appearing to cave to Seattle bullies — exactly the perception she’s apparently trying to avoid — or alienating her political base.
Not exactly where she wants to be heading into a contested election.
So how does the Governor turn this into a win-win situation? The Governor has repeatedly drawn a line in the sand, demanding that any Viaduct replacement must maintain capacity. The key to accepting the surface option as both a transportation and political compromise rests on how we define the word “capacity.”
In recent months, WSDOT has insisted on defining capacity in terms of moving vehicles, but that’s not always been the focus of transportation planners. Indeed, the Environmental Impact Statement sets forth a broader vision of the project’s purpose:
Purpose of the Proposed Action
The purpose of the proposed action is to provide a transportation facility and seawall with improved earthquake resistance that maintains or improves mobility and accessibility for people and goods along the existing Alaskan Way Viaduct Corridor.
Hard-nosed rebuild supporters have mocked King County Executive Ron Sims as some kind of enviro-whacko hippie for stating that we should be focused on moving people, not cars — but that’s exactly the stated purpose put forth in the EIS. And that’s exactly the language the Governor needs to join former tunnel supporters in support of a surface compromise.
It’s not a matter of redefining the word capacity — “mobility” was always the definition from the start, and accepting an alternative that improves mobility, while perhaps decreasing vehicle capacity, is perfectly consistent with Gov. Gregoire’s line in the sand. That is, as long as she doesn’t paint herself into a rhetorical corner by insisting otherwise.