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Can it be? A Viaduct solution?

The bored tunnel idea, long a long shot, helps the politicians find common ground. Now, can they find enough funding for it?

Will wonders never cease? We have agreement on a Viaduct solution, starring the late-arriving idea of a deep bored tunnel. But wonders may cease, if the idea does not hold together politically, financially, or in the Legislature.

Tuesday morning, Gov. Gregoire, Mayor Nickels, and Executive Sims will unveil the consensus plan. There will be no new (or repaired) Viaduct, which means the central waterfront will be dramatically opened up for a park and some redevelopment. Some of the SR 99 traffic will be diverted to downtown streets and one new lane, each way, on I-5; some will shift to some new transit routes, mostly bus rapid transit and trolleys. The rest will go in a bored tunnel angling from the Battery Street entrance down to First Avenue and emerging near the stadiums.

Gov. Gregoire, pushed by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and Boeing, and other business interests (Microsoft is being cagey), was the first to get this last-minute religion of the tunnel. Next to join the consensus apparently was Mayor Nickels, who has less money than the state to put into the pot and therefore less leverage. Probably the least reliable convert to the tunnel scheme is Ron Sims, but he has a desperately broke King County to seek relief in Olympia and so is anxious to please.

The Greens are not on board, though they probably will go along if the tunnel is able to solve its financing and scheduling problems. (Scheduling is a big issue, since if Gov. Gregoire sticks by her promise to tear down the shaky Viaduct by 2012, that will mean five years or so of detouring that traffic while the tunnel is completed. I note that the 2012 date is not in the early reporting.) Pure-surface-and-transit advocates such as Mike O'Brien of the Sierra Club and Cary Moon of the People's Waterfront Coalition want to see more done to discourage auto transit, and they question all the cost and risk of the tunnel when national climate measures are probably going to drive down auto use.

Still, the political consensus will probably hold together, if unenthusiastically, hoping to impress the federal funders and to overcome House Speaker Frank Chopp's opposition. The problem is the finances, which is a complicated patchwork of Port money, new funding sources (such as license tabs to fund a "transportation benefit district"), and — unmentioned for now, due to political indigestion — regional tolling on bridges, I-5, and the new tunnel. We shall see.

Another political aspect of this breakthrough is whether it will lead to still more regional cohesion, particularly on the big remaining local issue, the "orphan highways" left behind when Proposition 1 (roads and transit) failed in 2007. Federal infrastructure spending will help, but only if the region can actually put aside its endless bickering among no-yield constituencies. For the Viaduct, at least for now, a peace treaty has been found.

David Brewster is founder of Crosscut and editor-at-large. You can e-mail him at david.brewster@crosscut.com.


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