A peace treaty for the Viaduct wars

An artful, if fragile grand compromise has emerged, late in an exhaustive process. Here's a look at its components and its politics — and what could blow it apart.
Crosscut archive image.

Under the Alaskan Way Viaduct on Seattle's waterfront. (Chuck Taylor)

An artful, if fragile grand compromise has emerged, late in an exhaustive process. Here's a look at its components and its politics — and what could blow it apart.

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.)

The coalition is unstable for at least two reasons. First, not all the Greens will join hands in the center, and they (and the City of Seattle) may push for a version of this plan that decouples the bored tunnel from the surface solutions, promising a tunnel later if needed and the big gamble about putting all those cars on Seattle's streets turns into the mother of all traffic jams. Why build the expensive tunnel if it turns out you don't need it? Don't keep appeasing car commuters when you can nudge them toward transit and bikes and living downtown. (Chances for a later tunnel, given there will be no funding and probably huge activist resistance to it, are slim.)

This will be the big showdown, with many Seattle politicians tempted to hold firm for surface-plus-transit. Key actors will be Sierra Club and Futurewise, both of whom held their ground at a recent stakeholders advisory group session, but had some kind words for the compromise as well.

If the greens defect in large numbers and the coalition is split, it's easy to imagine Olympia throwing up its hands at more Seattle chaos. And it's possible to imagine Boeing and Microsoft and the Port of Seattle getting all heavy and huffy about jeopardizing jobs in a terrible recession (not to mention jeopardizing the next Boeing jet building location). Non-Seattle legislators are likely to be fed up with all the delay and hostile to an experiment in urban design in Seattle that could get all the other suburban and statewide users of SR 99 mighty angry. One outcome of that explosion is the Legislature imposing an ugly new Viaduct. Another is yanking the money from the waterfront to put it into fixing the Evergreen Point floating bridge, still way short of funds.

Which brings us back to the local Big Three: Mayor Greg Nickels, County Executive Ron Sims, and Gov. Chris Gregoire. They say they will decide before the Legislature opens in January which plan they favor. They might split over the surface-tunnel compromise or the surface-now-tunnel-maybe version. None of them want that word tunnel wrapped around their necks, after they punted in 2007 and asked the voters to choose, and got that famous double-no vote (no tunnel, no viaduct). Nickels would have to feel that others have put together a powerful compromise that, given the economic distress, he has to endorse. (Only a few weeks ago, Nickels' office was saying they favored the surface solution with a someday-maybe-tunnel.) Gregoire might come to feel she has enough political cover with all those potent endorsers of the grand compromise that she could stand up to Speaker Chopp and somehow get the votes from the Legislature. (Sims is impossible to read these days, but he has said that he likes the tunnel-maybe-later approach.)

We'll know in a few weeks, maybe even in a few days. It's all coming to a head, with our politicians waiting for others to provide the leadership so they can follow. (Actually, there's a lot more backstage, deniable maneuvering going on.) Regardless of the outcome, the three transportation agencies (state, city, county) have done a good job of keeping an open mind, listening to lots of perspectives, and laying the groundwork for an impressive compromise to emerge. The surprise ending: It has.


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