The debate about Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct used to be a very public, contact sport, but as many local politicians were carted off the field, the controversy moved to a 30-person stakeholders group, who meet very quietly. Meanwhile, the politicians edge back onto the playing field and hint at solutions.
Gov. Chris Gregoire addressed a group of civic worthies Wednesday and dropped broad hints that she is now a fan of the no-tunnel, no-viaduct, surface-plus-transit solution that she used to excoriate. Noting that Seattle is an "international city," Gregoire defined that gauzy term by saying an international city could not possibly have on-street parking downtown or two-way streets. (So much for New York and Paris, but nevermind.) Those may be weird definitions, but they are unmistakable signals that she is buying into the stakeholder group's emerging consensus to divert a lot of viaduct through traffic to Seattle's downtown streets, thus needing only a four-lane, slow boulevard on the central waterfront.
But this is only a hint, so far, a kind of don't-hold-me-to-it pander to Seattle urbanists who favor this solution. The actual recommendation of the state-convened group is not due out until after election day next November. Likewise, another mediation group is keeping alive the hope that the 520 bridge could afford a deep tunnel connecting the bridge to the Husky Stadium intersection, so the governor doesn't alienate the Montlake zealots. Gregoire's opponent for governor, Dino Rossi, meanwhile has surprised many by saying he now favors a skinny-lane tunnel on the waterfront, and also an eight-lane 520, thus appeasing both the eco-density gang on the waterfront and the highway-hugging traditionalists in the suburbs. (Rossi badly needs some transportation advisers of a contemporary outlook.)
The other politician putting his head up above the foxhole, just a bit, is state House Speaker Frank Chopp, who has all along wanted the viaduct to remain elevated (for those great views) and able to handle all 110,000 vehicles a day that it currently carries. These ideas are anathema in Seattle, so Chopp has tried (always backstage) to come up with mitigations. First he put a park lid on top the new structure. The latest version, unveiled to the unimpressed stakeholders' group last week, is a lower structure, partially covered with green space and incorporating new buildings and low-income housing to help pay for the costs and spread around the political benefits. The new structure would reportedly be moved out to the shoreline, where its great weight would be a problem over such deep water.
The imperatives of getting re-elected, combined with the wariness of politicians who lit all those exploding cigars last time, mean that we don't get to know the actual proposal until after we've done our duty in the voting booth. But it's getting pretty obvious that there is a broad coalition on the new waterfront plan, including unions, the urban design crowd, the Downtown Seattle Association, and greens. It means a surface boulevard replacing the viaduct, and various ways of deflecting the extra traffic with a little more transit (bus rapid transit serving Aurora, Ballard, and West Seattle) and a lot of new traffic capacity on Seattle streets, especially Western, First, and Second avenues. State, county, and city politicians seem on board (always excepting Chopp).
It's one thing to be on board when everything is still not public. The real test will come when the public sees the details, stores start screaming about lost curb parking out front, and everyone worries about how the scheme might end up diverting too many cars to I-5, already jammed. (The I-5 impact had originally been Gregoire's main reason for ridiculing the surface option.) The other real test is getting anything past the all-powerful Speaker Chopp, though he may budge if there's enough low-income housing somehow worked into the package.
The story marks a remarkable political journey by local politicians. They have gone from thinking that all the present traffic needed to be accommodated by any solution to the viaduct to thinking in terms of moving people (in various modes), not just cars. All these urban freeways were once paid for largely by federal money. Now they are in need of expensive repair and the feds have fled. One solution is to scrape up local money to rebuild them. When the voters said a loud No to that idea (and the climate change issue moved to the fore), we quietly thought about another approach: removing freeways. It might work.