As Mayor-elect Mike McGinn prepares to move into City Hall, it's a good time to check in on the region’s most contentious mega-project. Whatever you thought of last January's decision to pursue a bored tunnel through downtown to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, you should be paying attention again now. Some rather serious problems are emerging for Seattle, and decision points are looming.
Planning for the tunnel project has been underway for about a year. While much of the data about its engineering, risks, and impacts are still under wraps, there has been no shortage of public discussion on the politics. Most recently, the talk has focused on how McGinn will engage Olympia and the City Council once he’s in charge (which begins next week). Whether or not his election was a referendum against the tunnel, McGinn is quick to point out that the Seattle public continues to voice strong opposition to this project. For now, all he’s saying is that it’s his job as mayor to ask the hard questions.
My involvement in this project primarily is via my role as director of the People’s Waterfront Coalition. Our organization, along with many allies and partner organizations, has advocated for a highway-free waterfront and a transportation solution that fits where Seattle is headed. I served on the project's 2008 stakeholder committee, and I also was one of McGinn's informal outreach "ambassadors" during his recent transiiton.
As we move into the next phase of consideration and negotiations on the viaduct replacement, here are the trouble spots I see on the horizon.
Risks to Pioneer Square and the waterfront. Assuming the project goes forward, the south portal tunnel mouth is shaping up to be, in a word, dreadful. Just south of King Street, State Route 99 would transition from elevated to surface to tunnel, creating a spaghetti bowl of highway lanes, on- and off-ramps, and a frontage road. The freight underpass long planned for Atlantic Street is no longer envisioned being underground; new plans shown at recent public meetings depict it as a block-long elevated structure. When you see drawings of the highway-scaled infrastructure and hear the expected traffic volumes going to and from the tunnel portal via city streets (perhaps 59,000 cars a day, according to WSDOT’s Ron Paananen), it’s hard to see how the pedestrian party around Pioneer Square and the stadium area on game day wouldn't be crushed.
About a month ago, WSDOT determined the engineering and structural risks from boring under Pioneer Square and First Avenue were hopeless, or at least too expensive to mitigate. The risks to historic buildings and utilities from vibrations and ground settlement were serious enough that WSDOT went back to the drawing board with a new (old) proposed tunnel alignment: the waterfront. From about King Street to Yesler Way, the tunnel would follow the waterfront and then veer inland under downtown.
While the proposed change alleviates risks to the historic structures on First Avenue, there are likely significant problems for Seattle on the waterfront too, but engineers haven’t fully assessed them. The soils near the water are as bad as the Square's, if not worse. This routing could further concentrate the portal-bound traffic on the waterfront street and create conflicts with ferry loading and offloading. A different set of Pioneer Square buildings may be put at risk due to vibration and ground settlement. Tunneling at the water's edge likely jeopardizes the opportunity for a softer-edge shoreline and big waterfront park at the current site of Pier 48 and the Washington Street Boat Landing.
For now, the new tunnel alignment is not much more than a line on a map. Many questions remain to be answered about its viability, including Homeland Security and the Federal Highway Administration’s opinions on tunneling directly under the Federal Building.
The tunnel itself doesn’t help — and may worsen — access to downtown. The viaduct is primarily used for in-city trips; 85 percent of SR-99 trips start and end within city limits, and about half of viaduct users are accessing downtown. Because there would be no ramps to or from the tunnel, it isn’t useful for anyone coming downtown to work or shop or play; users of the Elliott, Western, Seneca or Columbia ramps would need to find a new route.
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