Viaduct politicians reach a big moment of truth

Delaying the decision was supposed to allow a consensus version to appear magically. Didn't happen. Instead there are three new champions and three new variants. This baby seems headed for the big scary Legislature.
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Delaying the decision was supposed to allow a consensus version to appear magically. Didn't happen. Instead there are three new champions and three new variants. This baby seems headed for the big scary Legislature.

We're in the media dead zone, an ideal time to release unpopular news. And these next few days also happen to be the time when Gov. Chris Gregoire, Mayor Greg Nickels, and County Executive Ron Sims are supposed to announce their consensus choice for that big political hot potato, the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

UPDATE: Sure enough, Gov. Gregoire has just announced a delay, now promising a January decision. Speaking for herself, Sims, and Nickels, the Governor said: "As a result of the continued overwhelming response and input on replacement options from stakeholders, we have asked our respective transportation teams to continue their review." A source in the Governor's office indicated the reason for the delay was to allow the deep-bored tunnel option more time to see if it could prove itself as a viable option, and that the Governor was now tending in that direction. Very likely, what's holding up the announcement is that the three political leaders are still arguing among themselves.

Even if these three leaders — not the best partnership, in any case — were to "agree," the Viaduct issues would be far from settled. That's because the Legislature must weigh in later this spring. At that time, Speaker Frank Chopp gets to cast his vote (and he has his own plan in the game), and the politics shift from the battle of Seattle to recession-charged, Seattle-hating statewide politics.

The stakes are high, and they've only gotten higher during all the studies and maneuvering during the last year. As you may recall, the state and the city have been feuding over the Viaduct ever since the earthquake of 2001 made it clear that some solution would have to be found beyond procrastination. The City put in its bid for a redesigned, park-lined waterfront, and when Gov. Gregoire could not decide between a new viaduct or a big expensive cut-and-cover tunnel, the City decided to head off the chance of a new elevated structure by referring the mess to the voters. They said no to the tunnel (emphatically) and no to the new structure.

Badly burned, the three leaders decided to stall for a year (mostly so Gregoire could get reelected), hoping that the three transportation departments, guided by a Seattle-style, all-inclusive panel of advisory stakeholders, could magically produce consensus. This being Seattle, consensus did not materialize, though the task forces did a lot of good work. Instead, three new schemes emerged, shifting the battlefield. Another problem with the long stall: the economy turned to vinegar.

Each of the new schemes has a relatively new champion. One is the surface-transit option, pushed very skillfully by a landscape architect named Cary Moon. This plan, much tweaked over the past year, would knock down the Viaduct and shift the traffic to a new lane each way on I-5, to Western, First, Second, and Fifth Avenues downtown, to a waterfront boulevard, and add some transit improvements. (It also does some fine things north of the Battery Street tunnel portal, re-uniting the South Lake Union neighborhood.) Surface-only is a big gamble, however, distributing about half the traffic now on the Viaduct into the already-congested downtown Seattle streets. But it's relatively cheap, and you could start doing it right away. It would also earn any politician who backs it lots of green points, since it is a car-discouraging, post-carbon scenario.

The problem with the surface-transit option is that downtown Seattle interests have come to really oppose it, as do unions, big business (notably Boeing and Microsoft), and lots of commuters and Westsiders who use the Viaduct to get through Seattle without getting stuck on I-5. It's hard to imagine it passing the Legislature, even if there is a vague promise to build a tunnel if the congestion proves intolerable.

Enter the surprise second scheme: a deep bore tunnel to provide through traffic, combined with the best features of the surface option distributing more traffic through downtown. This idea comes from Cascadia Institute, a transportation think tank headed by Bruce Agnew and nested in Discovery Institute, headed by Bruce Chapman. For most of the past year, this idea has been dismissed as too expensive, as requiring a public-private partnership (with tolls to pay off the private contractor), and as too risky (with the Big Dig analogy invariably cited). But then the Chamber of Commerce, led by lawyer Tayloe Washburn, its current president, tried to forge a "grand compromise" or peace treaty, enabling the deep-bore tunnel to rise from its grave.

The deep-bore compromise had to scramble to deal with the earlier objections. Instead of two tunnels, side by side, they now favor one tunnel, with a wider bore, saving money and time. To cope with higher costs (a serious problem in the recession), the advocates are attacking the high contingencies in the economic projections for the tunnel alternative (transportation departments are spooked by the Big Dig, so they build in huge cushions), and finding more money in tolls, a waterfront improvment district that would raise local taxes, Port contributions, and maybe a big bag of cash from President Stimulus.

It's an artful compromise, but there is an unmistakeable air of late-in-the-day desperation about it. Time has presumably run out for the studies, yet this one would require several overtime periods to look at some of its huge unresolved issues. The proposal is thick with maybes, such as whether the Legislature would slap a lot of tolls on the project and I-5 and the Lake Washington bridges. Speaker Chopp is said to be very wary about cost overruns inherent in most tunnel projects. And the greens, having their heart set on discouraging auto traffic, are hanging in there for the surface-transit solution, amid some comforting words about doing the tunnel in some phase two, if needed. Ron Sims is reportedly still dubious about the tunnel, with Mayor Nickels getting more intrigued by it. The test will be to see if enough money (from the Port, the City, the Corps of Engineers, and others) can be assembled.

So there you risk having Seattle going down to Olympia with a split message, as before. Gov. Gregoire has refused to lead on this, deferring to the stakeholder process. Mayor Nickels has been pretty much in the surface camp, as has Ron Sims, but not out front. All three are now looking with more interest on the tunnel proposal. At any rate, a new split developed, echoing the long-standing one between those who want to keep the present vehicular capacity through downtown and those who want to reclaim the waterfront and strike blows for pedestrians, bikes, and transit. This is the point where the Legislature starts venting about Seattle's endless indecision and remembers that SR 99 is a state highway after all, so maybe the state ought to do what it really wants to do, which is build a new viaduct.

Enter option three, a new viaduct — either a scaled down one with two lanes each way, side by side, or the Frank Chopp "megaduct" with those elevated lanes buried in a complicated structure with stores and offices under the highway lanes and a long park on the lid. The Choppaduct has been the joker in the deck all along. It has few supporters, and it's the most expensive (or second-most), and the city forces wanting to reclaim the access to the waterfront would probably block such a plan with litigation or endless hassles over getting City permits. But it would not die. In fact, Chopp, a famously stubborn individual, has only gotten more passionate about his idea as the opposition has gone from polite head nods to detailed attack (particularly from the Downtown Seattle Association).

The three transportation departments attempted a quiet assassination of the Choppaduct several weeks ago, when they issued their recommendation for two "hybrids" distilled from its eight scenarios. One was the scaled-back new viaduct (a big surprise, since there is so little support for it), and the other was the surface-transit option (with much emphasis on the new lanes on I-5). Both almost met the spending limit of $2.8 billion available from the state. By stressing the cost limit, sensibly enough in these times, the experts ruled out Chopp's plan and the deep-bore tunnel. (Sorry Frank, and nothing against your neat idea!) This maneuver, which probably incensed the Speaker more than enabling him to make a dignified retreat, is thought to have come from the Governor. It didn't work. Neither Chopp nor the tunnel coalition folded his hand.

Absent consensus, it's quite natural for the three politicians on the spot to seek a way to continue to waffle. One political dodge would be to embrace the surface option, but with wads of money toward studying the tunnel, and then let the Legislature fight it out. (This has echoes of the earlier cop-out, of referring these bedeviling engineering issues to the voters of King County.) The risk is the Legislature would, in disgust, just build a new viaduct (known as "declaring war"), or Chopp would get his plan approved (in phases, to be affordable), or the Legislature would just patch the damn roadway and take the money saved and put it into something where there actually is agreement.

In theater, there's something called the "deus ex machina," where a deity intervenes at the last minute to straighten out a tangle beyond the devices of the mortals. As it happens, there are two dei lurking up there in the clouds. One is called "the FEMA solution," where an earthquake topples or weakens the old Viaduct to the point where the feds have to step in, fast, to get traffic flowing again. (This happened in Minneapolis.) It would be fast and ugly, but hey: it's the other guy's money. The other divine couple is President Obama and Sen. Patty Murray, who might shower down infrastructure gold enough to make one of the budget-busters financially feasible, and to dangle enough of this manna as to force the feuding locals to join hands to catch the waterfall of coins.

It would be an irony worthy of the gods' mirthful laughter if Seattle solved its most intractable political dilemma by delaying long enough for the miracle to arrive.


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