I’ve pretty much pooh-poohed Viaduct retrofit proposals, mostly because WSDOT engineers had insisted it wasn’t a cost effective option. No doubt we can extend the life of the Viaduct — we’re doing that now — but at some point it just becomes safer, less disruptive and cheaper over the long haul to replace the thing than it is to constantly repair it. Damn entropy.
Now comes a new WSDOT report that suggests a retrofit might be possible, though it doesn’t yet project the cost or the serviceable years added to the life-span of the structure.
Does this change my assessment of the various options? Well, sorta.
Money aside, there’s absolutely no doubt that given the choice between a tunnel and a bigger, wider rebuild, the former is by far the preferable option… and anybody who tells you different is either lying or crazy. The current Viaduct is a gaping wound through our city, a hunk of crumbling concrete that physically separates the downtown from the waterfront. It is a dirty, noisy, ugly monstrosity that lowers property values and offends both the physical and the aesthetic senses. It is an embarrassment to Seattle’s aspiration towards being a world-class city.
One can forgive city planners a half-century ago. I mean… who knew? But absent the existing Viaduct from our current city landscape, nobody in their right mind would ever seriously propose building one today. Such a proposal would be a nonstarter.
The only serious argument against a tunnel is the cost — at least an extra couple billion over the $2.8 billion estimate for a rebuild. But even that calculation is shortsighted. The tunnel option would dramatically increase property values in the area, and with more than double the serviceable life-span of an elevated replacement, a tunnel could end up saving future generations many billions of dollars in early replacement costs.
If we can afford the tunnel — if we can find the extra money to pay for it — we would be nuts to pass up this once in a half-century opportunity to reshape our downtown and waterfront for the better.
Which brings us back to the retrofit option.
If in fact we can safely extend the life of the Viaduct for another couple decades at the relatively bargain-basement price of say, only a billion dollars… given our region’s unique consensus-driven political culture, perhaps such a half-assed stopgap measure is the best solution we can come up with at this time. It would not only be less expensive, but less disruptive, as a retrofit is presumably the only option that doesn’t require tearing the damn thing down.
And best of all, it would give us the twenty years we obviously need to make a major decision in this town.
With a retrofit temporarily preventing the Viaduct from toppling over onto the waterfront, we would now have several years to develop complete engineering plans for the tunnel, rebuild and no-build options, which can then be put out for a public referendum by 2011… and again in 2013, and 2017. It’ll take a few more years to get the contract bids in place before voters approve the final project in 2021 and again in 2023, before repealing it only one year later in 2024. At which point the Legislature will finally step in and override the will of the voters. At this rate we can expect construction to begin sometime shortly before we’re all eaten by the Morlocks.
I know that’s not much of an endorsement of the retrofit option, but if the perfect is the enemy of the good, that’s about as good as you’re going to get from me.