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A peace treaty for the Viaduct wars

An artful, if fragile grand compromise has emerged, late in an exhaustive process. Here's a look at its components and its politics — and what could blow it apart.

The wheels of politics grind slow in Seattle, but sometimes they grind fine. That appears to be happening, at long last, with the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Houston, we have decision! (Well, almost.)

What has happened is that a consensus on the vexing problem of the Viaduct seems to have emerged, partly through exhaustion of the parties (who have been debating it since the Nisqually earthquake of 2001 weakened the old structure), partly through some adroit political deal-making backstage. This being Seattle, however, it could all fall apart. And there's at least one more big debate in the offing.

The details of this "grand compromise" are fascinating, but let me sketch the big picture as I see it. The consensus version tries to meld some of the better, more popular ideas from the past years of debates and studies. First, it diverts some of the Alaskan Way, State Route 99 traffic through downtown Seattle. It does this by making north-south avenues able to take more traffic, carving out some new lanes on I-5, removing some parking lanes. (And adding transit.) This is a half-a-loaf version of the so-called "surface-plus-transit solution," pushed by the new urban thinkers such as Cary Moon, who want to reduce auto traffic and restore some of the familiar, slower, street-grid, pre-freeway life of the city.

Next, it accommodates most of the passing-through SR 99 traffic, particularly trucks, by boring a tunnel under downtown, extending from the mouth of the Battery Street tunnel (maybe a few blocks north of that) down to the stadium zone. Not the very expensive two-tube tunnel once proposed, but a single, wider tunnel that can be bored faster and cheaper. (It would be 53-58 feet wide, with two decks, and probably three lanes per deck, one each way reserved for trucks and transit.) It would be tolled: another concession to modern thinking. And it would be convertible later to more transit use, if we really do learn to use cars less.

Now, as to the waterfront itself and the civic dream of a wide park and a reconnection of Seattle to the water. There would be no Viaduct. (Sorry, Frank Chopp!). The boulevard of surface traffic would be reduced to possibly only two lanes, thanks to the diversion to the tunnel and the street grid and a "couplet" of traffic along Western Avenue, one block to the east.

This grand compromise solves some of the knottiest problems of the Viaduct muddle. The Viaduct stays up while the tunnel is being bored, so downtown Seattle doesn't have to spend 5-8 years in detour hell while a new viaduct or a waterfront trench-tunnel is being constructed. It stiffs the folks who want a new Viaduct, but it gladdens the advocates for surface-only and for a tunnel for the through traffic. It saves money by deferring the seawall construction for some years and generates new money by imposing tolls (maybe including both floating bridges and I-5). And you get a waterfront park that might be quite grand and attractive, not a glorified boulevard.

The politics of this solution are impressive — if unstable. You start with (big and small) business interests who have been hoping to avoid too much disruption and to preserve the ability to get commuters, trucks, and Boeing components through the sticky wicket of Seattle's downtown. You get labor on board, mostly because it looks like a scheme that might actually get passed in the Legislature, getting all those construction jobs happening in an otherwise terrible time for the building industry. And you get some of the environmental and urban design and walkable city folks into the camp. The Legislature might smile on the proposal since it preserves traffic flow and doesn't exceed the money available. (Whether Speaker Chopp will be so miffed to see his dream vanish of a new Viaduct with park on top and retail below as to block the compromise is one of the Big Questions for Olympia.)


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Dec 11, 7:26 a.m. Inappropriate

To me this "grand compromise" sounds like a political stunt by those who are trying to defeat a surface option. They are warping themselves in a flag of compromise when really all they are advocating for is a tunnel (think at least 3 billion dollars). After all if a tunnel is built wouldn't we build something like the surface alternative anyways. There wouldn't be a need for a freeway downtown. That really isn't a compromise then.

Regardless, this option is a throw back to the thinking of the 1950's and I'm pretty sure it has no political support outside of the disgruntled stakeholders that want a new freeway. Do you really believe that if a true compromise was reached that the mayor, the executive and the governor wouldn't have already announced it yet?

It just sounds fishy to me. We shouldn't have to wait too long to know I guess.

bgtothen

Posted Thu, Dec 11, 8:46 a.m. Inappropriate

The compromise has been reached, it seems to me, by throwing out the ground rules.
A year ago, fixing the seawall was critical, simply had to be done. And the tunnel under downtown (David does not say which Avenue) was, I think, described as even more expensive and troublesome than the one under Alaska Way. I hope new information has come to light (because the compromise sounds pretty good) but I suspect it's desperation at work.

kieth

Posted Thu, Dec 11, 8:53 a.m. Inappropriate

The compromise is probably the only way out of the impasse being created by misguided surface ideologues and the backward-thinking elevated supporters. Neither of these two bookends are viable. An elevated highway simply shouldn't be allowed in such a precious piece of urban land, while surface options would turn our streets into mini-highways and force many jobs out of the city - feeding even more car oriented development on the periphery of the metropolitan area. Hardly an environmental outcome.

It should be noted that "New Urbanists" are much like "Neo-Conservatives", they are radicals who have lost any practical perspective on how to resolve issues and simply will not listen to reason. Why have two extremes emerged as front runners? The compromise being proposed aims to save both the waterfront and preserve our streets for more noble purposes, such as pedestrian and bicycle use, while maintaining our fragile transportation infrastructure.

unter

Posted Thu, Dec 11, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

David -
Great summary of "The Great Compromise" This explains it better than most for those of us who can't understand anything more than third grade English.

I find it ironic that it comes down to the SBA to finally put the pieces together in a reasonable fashion that will work for them, as business owners, rather than some of the organizations that claim to represent them.(Sorry Allied Arts, PWC, Futurewise, Sierra Club, and FC) Sorry all you guys, but you have failed the public, and sat on your laurels pushing your own agenda for way too long, and have ignored the possibility of a compromise for way to long. Frankly, your orgs have become part of the problem.

Now, let's all come to the center of the road and agree on something and move forward, lest this thing falls down and, god forbid, hurts one of you!

-David

Webster

Posted Fri, Dec 12, 9:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Great "news" you practice here. The real story is that neither of the final options have a tunnel.

Do you get paid directly from those that want more roads, or are you really that far out of the loop?

Posted Fri, Dec 12, 10:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Matt

I think your accusation is way out of line....

From your view point the real story may be that there is no tunnel, but as DB has written a story about something else, of which the tunnel is only a small part of.

Feel free to write your own editorial for publication if the "real" news is not up to your expectations.

Webster

Posted Fri, Dec 12, 5:41 p.m. Inappropriate

Intresting, Brewster doesn't mention a single name in this so-called 'coalition'. That said, keeping a tunnel of some sort, for latter consideration is good planning.

Similarly, it may also be possible to keep a viaduct replacement on the table - FWIW, a smaller Chopp style viaduct expanding Victor Steinbrueck park and the Market seems like a no brainer.

Again, if you want the gold plate downtown Seattle, pay for what makes sense and stop this PR scam.

Posted Fri, Dec 12, 6:24 p.m. Inappropriate

[Davidmg], his description is exactly plan C of the most recent set of options, plus a tunnel. So I'm not sure how you call the tunnel (the most expensive piece) a "small part" of the story. Adding a tunnel to one of the other options isn't combining them - it's adding them together. Why don't we add the Choppway to the top of it and call it a real freeway?

Anyway, I was probably a bit too harsh, but calling the ludicrous Chamber of Commerce plan a "compromise", then spinning it as an almost done deal just one day before all tunnel options were rejected outright sounds like an attempt to build public opinion to me. Not an attempt to report news.

Posted Fri, Dec 12, 8:31 p.m. Inappropriate

A couple of years ago the wise pundits told the Sierra Club that surface-transit was a pipe dream, support a tunnel or Olympia would force an elevated on us. The Sierra Club ignored the advice, supported Cary Moon's vision, and now the surface-transit option is the leading contender. Then the wise pundits told the Sierra Club to support RTID, otherwise light rail would be forever dead and the roads would be built anyway. The Sierra Club ignored the advice, light rail came back without any roads and passed. Now Mr. Brewster recommends that the Sierra Club support a tunnel, or the city could get stuck with an elevated. This is like the movie groundhog day.

The Sierra Club has been on the winning side of every big road debate in this state the last bunch of years. That's because the Sierra Club is better aligned with voters' values on transportation than the corporations and pundits that keep pushing auto-centric solutions.

Get the policy right, the politics will follow. In this case, prioritize our sense of place and a clean transportation solution. Not cars. That's good policy and good politics.

michael

Posted Sat, Dec 13, 9:13 a.m. Inappropriate

The real reason a tunnel isn't on the City or State's list is its the only way they can kill Chopp's horrible idea. Down in Olympia all the rational arguments against that urban monstrosity, DSA's letter, and any pleading from Seattle don't matter. Money does, especially this year. You can kill Chopp's box because it cost too much and the funding is flakey, but that drags a tunnel off the table as well. Thanks, Frank, you've really served your constituents well.

dsmith

Posted Sat, Dec 13, 10:45 a.m. Inappropriate

A few comments, to clarify my article:

As to the route of the deep-bore tunnel, it might go under Second or Third Aves. or it might angle from the Battery Street entrance (or some blocks north) under downtown and coming out around the Stadiums. Whether it could also be a transit tunnel depends on how deep it is, so that it could have some stations downtown.

And is it a compromise? It certainly has drawn a lot from the surface option (a new lane on I-5, using Western Ave. to lessen waterfront traffic). It also marks some real movement on the part of the business backers for the deep-bore tunnel idea in the way it embraces tolls and backs away from the public-private partnership ideas for funding it. It potentially is more transit friendly, if you can put buses and future rail transit in the tunnel. And it's cheaper by being one tunnel rather than two.

But the commenters are right that the "grand compromise" is still mostly a business plan. What may happen, as the two alternatives recommended by the work group draw more flak, is that some of the groups could start to move toward the compromise. So it might have been more accurate for me to call the peace treaty a kind of outline of a potential agreement. Likewise, the alliance supporting the just-surface option might broaden their support by including the deep-bore tunnel as phase two, or putting still more capacity on the waterfront boulevard, or getting an agreement and funding for immediate boosts in bus rapid transit.

The point is, the Seattle interests need to find a consensus plan with broad, stable support if they are going to survive the coming legislative donnybrook.

Posted Thu, Apr 30, 9:05 p.m. Inappropriate

So here's what is likely to happen:

Seattle challenges the Tunnel bill amendment to get out of having to pay cost overruns. If it does, the compromise is dead. If it doesn't, all incumbants will be voted out of office. An Initiative will be passed stopping the Tunnel.

All factions will retreat back to their narrow special interest preferred alternatives.

No consensus is achieved.

By the end of the year, the numbers will come out on cost, volumes, tolling etc. It will be a bust. But it will conveniently come out after the November elections. The legislature will reconvene in January 2010 and make a decision to reduce the budget by $1 billion and send it to the 520 bridge project.

The balance will be used to Retrofit the Viaduct as a compromise to putting a new bigger Viaduct on the waterfront. Urban designs will soften the design and sound of the viaduct while making it completely safe for any expected earthquake.

All the rest of us will go back to our families and friends and wonder why we ever got so exercised about this thing anyway.

Goodnight David!

Art

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