In yet another sign that the Viaduct Rebuild option is losing public support while the Surface-Plus-Transit option picks up steam, rumors are swirling that the state is prepared to spring a “February Surprise” on voters just weeks before a March 13 special election. According to multiple sources WSDOT will announce next week a new smaller, less expensive Rebuild-Lite proposal, an 11th-hour, 4-lane redesign that shaves tons of concrete and $400 million off the current 6-lane design’s $2.8 billion estimated cost.
Um… I think the governor just blinked.
In dismissing Seattle Mayor Greg Nickel’s Tunnel-Lite, state officials called the proposal untested, unstudied and two-years too late to the table, and yet Rebuild-Lite would borrow its primary innovation, a 4-lane design with wide shoulders that can be used as exit lanes during peak traffic hours. And unfortunately for rebuild proponents, I’m guessing the two Lite options would also share the same reputation as hastily concocted political gambits designed more to move voters than drivers.
The same arguments used to attack Tunnel-Lite can now be used to attack its Rebuild cousin: it is untested, unstudied and two-years too late to the table. And after years of being told that only a six-lane elevated replacement can maintain or increase traffic capacity at an affordable price, voters will now be asked to trust WSDOT that their last-minute 4-lane design can do the same job at a lower cost.
Clearly intended to influence voters in favor of a rebuild, the new, slimmed-down proposal would likely only sow confusion. Rather than being faced with the choice between the uncertain design and cost of a Tunnel-Lite versus an unappealing but unsurprising rebuild, voters will now have absolutely no idea what they’ll be getting (or paying) from either proposal. And I’m not sure what kind of mandate a 4-lane elevated structure can garner from a non-binding advisory measure that describes “a six-lane elevated structure, increased to four lanes in each direction between South King Street and new ramps at Seneca and Columbia Streets.”
Not only would an abrupt switch to a 4-lane proposal undermine the rebuild option’s most compelling feature — familiarity — it would also undermine the primary arguments against considering a Surface-Plus-Transit solution. If a 4-lane tunnel or elevated structure can suddenly maintain the same traffic capacity as the long proposed 6-lane versions, why can’t a 6-lane boulevard? And if there’s plenty of time at this late stage of the game to dramatically re-jigger both the tunnel and elevated designs, why can’t we find the time to properly study a Surface-Plus-Transit solution?
Yeah, at this point the Rebuild-Lite proposal is still just a rumor. But should it come true it will likely upset the current political dynamics of the public debate over how to replace the Viaduct… and not necessarily in the way rebuild proponents intend.