I first heard about Gov. Gregoire’s viaduct “punt” last Friday following the big wind storm right as I was in the middle of a two-hour commute from Redmond to U-Dub. (Yeah…I know I should have stayed home, but I didn’t really have a choice.) Normally, my commute is 25 minutes by car or an hour by bus. On Friday, however, the SR520 floating bridge was shut down to repair wind damage. At about the one hour mark, crawling along at under 10 mph on I-405, I was contemplating the many ways my quality of life would decline if the SR520 bridge decided to sink. And then the news broke about Gregoire’s statement.
Frankly, I was irritated by another delay in replacing a failing piece of critical infrastructure. Gregiore had her chance to be The Decider™ and she decided to punt. Or so I thought from the media account.
After the sting of a painful commute faded, I looked into Gregoire’s statement and it became clear to me that she had, in fact, made nearly all of the important decisions. She decided that all options were out except the tunnel and the rebuild. Essentially, Gregoire validated (politically and practically) the engineering, environmental, and fiscal analyses found in DOT’s Supplemental Draft, Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) that rejected all but these two options. And eliminating the fringe options is a good decision.
The DEIS dealt with each fringe option in turn. I’ll only mention the so-called no-replacement option because, I believe, Goldy disagrees with me on it. The DEIS finds that the no-replacement option isn’t viable:
- Replacing the viaduct with a four-lane surface street would substantially increase congestion for most of the day and part of the evening on I-5 through downtown Seattle, downtown streets, and Alaskan Way. These congested conditions are predicted to occur even if improvements were made to downtown streets and transit ridership substantially increased.
- I-5 through Seattle doesn’t have room for additional trips since it’s already congested through much of the day and into the evening. However, under the No Replacement concept, many trips that currently use the viaduct would shift to I-5, causing it to become even more congested.
- Downtown street traffic would increase by 30 percent, though traffic increases to specific areas like Pioneer Square and the waterfront could exceed 30 percent.
- With a four-lane roadway, traffic on Alaskan Way would quadruple to 35,000 to 56,000 vehicles per day compared to about 10,000 vehicles today. This traffic would make it difficult for patrons to get to waterfront businesses and would create more conflicts between vehicles and the many bicyclists and pedestrians that use Alaskan Way.
- Neighborhoods west of I-5 (Ballard, Queen Anne, Magnolia, and West Seattle) would have less direct connections to and through downtown; therefore, travel times for trips to and through downtown would increase for drivers from these areas.
A four-lane Alaskan Way would create more congestion on I-5 and downtown streets than the Surface Alternative evaluated in the Draft EIS. The project partners dropped the Surface Alternative because it didn’t meet the AWV Project’s purpose, which is to “maintain or improve mobility, accessibility, and traffic safety for people and goods along the existing Alaskan Way Viaduct Corridor.”
More congestion, longer trip times, and greater susceptibility to accidents, construction, and events? No thanks. The no-replacement option would make a trip to (or through) downtown Seattle less desirable than a field trip through a rendering plant. If anything, it’s a plan to slowly strangle downtown Seattle.
I’m also not convinced by reports that other cities have removed capacity with minimal long term effects. Such decisions are generally not made randomly—there is engineering judgment that precedes such a drastic move. With I-5 at capacity and downtown already too congested at peak times, the engineering judgment suggests that the Seattle waterfront is not a good candidate for capacity reduction.
Gregoire made another important decision. She decided that the decision between the tunnel option and the rebuild option would come down to a vote of the people. But not just any people. She put it up to a vote by the people who would gain the greatest benefit. Oh…and the people who would have to pay the price difference for a tunnel.
The Seattle Times editorial board refers to this as Gregoire’s pragmatic punt.
Effectively, Gregoire is saying, “we will go with the rebuild option because the State has an obligation to replace an important and failing part of the highway infrastructure and, by the way, Seattle, if you want a tunnel instead let us know (soon!) and, if so, include your credit card number.”
What some consider a “punt” is really an offer of an upgrade option for Seattle.
The tunnel upgrade option for Seattle is good politics, too. If the voters decide to spend a couple billion of their own dollars for the tunnel, who can deny them? Or if the voters cheap-out and decide that a rebuilt monstrosity along the waterfront is good enough, then…well, then let them lie in their own noise pollution.
This morning on KUOW’s Weekday, Joni Balter and Joel Connelly had a mini-debate over the Governor’s decision. Balter considered the decision strategically sound. Why? Because Gregoire knows that House Speaker Frank Chopp will do everything he can legislatively to kill the tunnel. And Mayor Nickels will interfere with any attempt to implement the rebuild option. As Balter points out, there is one power higher than Gregoire, and that is the voters.
Joel Connelly, on the other hand, felt that Gregoire offered a shanked punt. We pay her to be The Decider™, and she ought to decide. In case you haven’t figured it out, I find Balter’s arguments more compelling.
Clearly, Gregoire favors the rebuild option; she probably expects Seattle to fail in coming up with either the public support or the funding for a tunnel. The ball is now in Nickels’ court to both build public support and convert his fantasy funding plan into something grounded in reality.
The DEIS prices the tunnel at between $3.6 and $4.3 billion, and the elevated rebuild from $2.5 to $2.9 billion. Funding for the rebuild is almost in place, as there is now $2.45 billion committed to the project, including $2.2 billion from the State, $0.24 billion from the Feds, and $0.016 billion from Seattle.
The tunnel option would likely draw an additional $500 million from Seattle and $200 million from the Port of Seattle. Other potential funding sources include a local improvement district (actually, this was proposed by Goldy) that could provide $250 million, a regional ballot measure (i.e. new taxes), additional Army Corps of Engineers funding for the seawall part of the project, and additional Federal highway and emergency relief funding.
In the long run, the tunnel option offers significant advantages. Most importantly, it will remake the downtown Seattle waterfront. Have you ever walked from the Pike Place Market to the waterfront? Man…talk about an unpleasant experience! A tunnel would …
…dramatically decrease noise levels by about 12 A-weighted decibels (dBA) along the waterfront. This would sound like cutting the noise level by more than half. Noise along the central section of the project corridor is currently loud and would not change much if the Elevated Structure Alternative is built.
The way I see it, the tunnel option is a long term investment, and one that will be appreciated by generations of Seattleites. I can imagine thirty years from now, two lovers will be strolling down to the waterfront, hand in hand. Under one scenario they’ll excitedly discuss their future life together as they take in the pleasant views. Under the other scenario, one will bellow at the other , “I can’t believe they built a fucking freeway through the waterfront!”
So I hope Seattle goes for the option…who knows what kind of difference it could make. I’m just sayin’.