Viaduct redux

King Couny Executive Ron Sims and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels decide to work together, and the shape of a grand compromise begins to appear.
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King Couny Executive Ron Sims and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels decide to work together, and the shape of a grand compromise begins to appear.

If ever a story went rapidly from community obsession to obscurity, it's the Alaskan Way Viaduct problem in Seattle. Right after an advisory election last month about how to replace the elevated waterfront highway, when just about everybody looked bad and lost, the major actors took a vow of silence, smiled gamely at each other, and snapped off the floodlights. Behind the scenes, however, a lot is taking place, and outlines of the ultimate plan are coming into view. The election, declared meaningless by many, including Washington state House Speaker Frank Chopp, actually was very meaningful in political terms. The tunnel option, which once had enjoyed the broadest Seattle coalition, effectively vanished after a miserable showing in the vote. The election was so sudden that the tunnel advocates decided to keep mum about the tunnel and just focus on attacking the viaduct, and as a result there was no real public case made for the tunnel. King County Executive Ron Sims and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels went from having rival positions to forming a partnership, thus tilting the balance back to the city and away from the state. Whether Gov. Chris Gregoire, the state Department of Transportation, and Speaker Chopp start moving toward a grand compromise is the big question. To hear folks in the mayor's office, the whole viaduct saga – from a 2001 earthquake wake-up call to multibillion-dollar estimates to replace the 54-year-old double-deck roadway – has become a cautionary tale. Seattle's position was fatally split between the tunnel advocates (Allied Arts, downtown Seattle interests, construction unions, and some environmentalists) and the "surface + transit" advocates (the anti-auto forces, numerous architects, and other environmentalists) and the majority of voters who worried about losing a quick way through downtown Seattle in the name of building a waterfront park for condo dwellers. With the city badly split, the state, which is ultimately responsible for such a highway, got more and more frustrated and eventually united behind an elevated rebuild that city leaders hated. So the first lesson for the city, acccording to Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, was to back away from specific solutions like a tunnel and try to find common ground for solving transportation needs without a tunnel or a new viaduct. "We are spending a lot of time learning from our mistakes in this," says Ceis genuinely, and he's not known for his humility. The bruised politicians who faced the press the day after the election had worked out a common, face-saving position, with Sims serving as the main mediator. They would start on the north and south ends of the Viaduct, which means they could claim progress and start employing all those workers. The one-mile "riddle in the middle," the double-deck portion along the waterfront, would be referred to a new committee of stakeholders, to be assembled after this legislative session. Chopp declined to show up for the press conference and remains enigmatic, but the others retreated from their prior positions and said all options were on the table for a grand peace conference. Well, not quite all options. Mayor Nickels said, a bit off script, that the voters had said "no to a waterfront freeway." How the voters had said that – they said no to a new viaduct or a tunnel – was not clear, though Ceis says polling indicates Seattle voters want to have access to a new waterfront park and therefore presumably don't want a roaring freeway alongside it. Nickels is open to a four-lane, slightly slower boulevard on Alaskan Way, maybe with some traffic lights, which is apparently not a freeway. Other observers note two possible solutions that could emerge. Kate Joncas, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, says she has some concern that the state will simply wait until the 2008 election and then suddenly announce they are building a new viaduct, telling the city in effect that we'll see you in court. Former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, a master dealmaker, has predicted the shape of the ultimate compromise: a depressed roadway along the waterfront, probably six lanes wide, with pedestrian bridges across it to waterfront parks. Munro compares it to the Interstate 5 ditch through downtown. That's not very pretty, but it avoids the cost of a tunnel lid, puts the traffic a little out of sight through use of berms, and isn't a new viaduct. Ceis dismisses this idea out of hand, saying that if you are going to build a trench you might as well put a lid over it. From conversations with Sims' and Nickels' staffers comes the outline of a joint county-city-Metro Transit approach that combines the boulevard with a broad attack on various choke points for downtown traffic and freight and a good dash of faster bus service. Another key is more attention to all the dire impacts on traffic during construction of a big new project, like the tunnel or a new viaduct – seven to 10 years of agony. The cloudy crystal ball would show a Highway 99 that is a slowway, not a freeway (think Granville Avenue in Vancouver), with speeds of about 45 mph, a four-lane boulevard along the waterfront and lots of ways of diverting traffic with a busway on Third Avenue, and better use of other major streets. The additional transit would favor "bus rapid transit" (BRT) that Sims has long advocated, some streetcar extensions, and semi-dedicated bus lanes, particularly along Aurora Avenue North and to West Seattle and Ballard (where live the heavy users of the viaduct and the monorail-deprived neighborhoods most angry with the tunnel idea). There will probably have to be considerable concessions to the Port of Seattle for freight movement and to placate the angry maritime unions, who are very sceptical of Nickels' surface solutions. The city-county near-consensus on this kind of plan is the major new factor in the dynamic of the viaduct war. NIckels and Sims had been somewhat estranged a year ago, particularly when Sims invaded the mayor's turf and proposed, in print, a plan for Seattle Center. The staffs agreed to avoid such public disagreements and work together better, so when Nickels needed help as the viaduct election neared, Sims came to his rescue and forged some of the peace terms with the governor. The basic pact between Sims and Nickels is that Sims gets BRT routes (which means the city giving up some traffic lanes on streets) and Nickels gets his small boulevard along the central waterfront. But if the city-county schism is healing, there's little sign that the city-state one is. Leading up to the March 13 election, Nickels had thought he could muscle the state, and Speaker Chopp thought he could muscle the city. Gregoire, an adept mediator, couldn't get either of these stubborn politicians to budge. Then, once the legislative session began, all kinds of legislators started eyeing the $2.8 billion set aside for the viaduct as money they could use in their districts, where no squabbles prevented ready implementation. Gov. Gregoire apparently grew alarmed at some polling that showed how bad she was looking amid all the dithering and surprised everyone by suddenly coming down with a heavy foot for building a new viaduct and calling the tunnel unsafe (a very unfair, if incendiary, charge). Up until then, Seattle politicians had expected her to give Seattle another year to come up with a consensus solution and the money to pay for it. The Gregoire maneuver cost her among many Seattle interests, and it indicated how much she remains caught in an Olympia mindset, which sees transportation as a highway issue, while Seattle is increasingly seeing urban transportation as weaning-from-highways. Gregoire compounds this problem by having few people on her top staff, aside from Ron Judd, who really "get" Seattle. Nor could she afford to defy Chopp, who has his own viaduct scheme (with an implausible park on top), when the governor had so many other legislative priorities to get through the speaker's chamber. So she threw down her glove, daring Seattle to a duel. The election was such a humbling event for Mayor Nickels that he was in no mood to pick up that glove and move toward a duel. Instead, he made common cause with Sims, pulled back from firm positions, and is now putting humpty dumpty together again. If Gregoire reciprocates by widening the group of stakeholders and advisers, the coming offstage year of trying to find a solution may actually work.


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