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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