(This post is part of a series.)

Last night, I spoke briefly at a lively public debate about the future of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the elevated highway hugging the Seattle waterfront through downtown. Constructed in the early 1950s, the Viaduct is aging and considered seismically unsound, and is slated for replacement. The Washington Department of Transportation is looking at several alternatives for replacing the facility, including a tunnel, a surface highway, and a rebuilt aerial highway similar to what’s there now.

One problem with the Viaduct—and with the idea of reconstructing it as a surface highway or as another aerial—is that it cuts off the the waterfront from the rest of downtown. The Viaduct is noisy and ugly, occupies some of the city’s best real estate, and depresses property values throughout the waterfront corridor. And that represents a huge loss to downtown Seattle, denying the city center an amenity that could become an increasingly important economic engine over the coming decades. When San Francisco opted to tear down its waterfront-hugging Embarcadero Freeway, instead of replacing it after it was damaged in a 1989 earthquake, the waterfront blossomed, real estate skyrocketed, new development, housing, and jobs moved to the area—and the threat of gridlock never materialized.

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  • Replacing the aerial viaduct with a tunnel—as Boston’s vastly overbudget Big Dig is doing through its downtown—is one option that could help reconnect the city with its waterfront (at least, once the decade of construction is over). Of course, the tunnel options do expand road capacity, and that carries with it environmental problems: promoting car dependence, which increases downtown air pollution; facilitating sprawl north and south of the city, rather than dense downtown development; and a decade of noise and pollution downtown.

    But the real problem is that the tunnel options are just plain expensive, and it’s hard to see where the money’s going to come from. There are at least 5 other Seattle-area megaprojects that are already underway, or are arguably just as important as the Viaduct:

    1. The monorail ($1.6 billion from city taxpayers);
    2. light rail ($2.1 billion from taxpayers from North and South King County, plus $500 million in federal money);
    3. rebuilding the crumbling sections of I-5 (at least $2 billion)
    4. rebuilding SR-520, across Lake Washington ($1.7-2.9 billion for the whole project); and
    5. rebuilding the waterfront seawall in downtown ($800 million).

    Given all of those priorities, who’s going to pay for a $3 billion waterfront tunnel? The federal government won’t; state taxpayers sent the R-51 transportation package down in flames, and it only gave $100 million to the viaduct; the city and county can’t afford it either.

    Perhaps the fairest thing would be to ask drivers to pay for a Viaduct replacement. After all, they’re the ones that most directly benefit from construction. But even that won’t fly—the tolls would have to be way too steep.

    Let’s say you wanted to pay to rebuild the viaduct by selling round-trip passes. Assuming that you could somehow convince enough people to buy passes to fill the viaduct to capacity, an annual pass that would let a driver take one round trip a day would have to cost between $1,500 and $2,500, depending on the option chosen. That’s right, $2,000 might buy you the right to use the Viaduct twice a day, for a year—and, again, that assumes that the Viaduct would be used to full capacity. Undoubtedly, there would be a few drivers who’d be willing to pay that much for the privilege and convenience of going downtown. But not many. You might be able to raise more revenue if you tolled the entire road system, rather than just the Viaduct—but then, the money would probably be used for other purposes (repairing I-5, rebuilding 520, etc.).

    So no matter what you think about the economic tradeoffs—and I’m sure that there are some very good arguments to be made that replacing the Viaduct’s road capacity will do good things for West Seattle and Ballard property values, and for the manufacturing districts north and south of downtown—it’s hard to see where the money’s going to come from.

    That suggests to me that we need to take a really hard look at the option of tearing down the Viaduct, and replacing it with nothing at all. The People’s Waterfront Coalition, a group led by architect Cary Moon, is developing the inklings of a plan for doing just that. The plans are based on a city-developed strategy for providing access to downtown in case the Viaduct fails in an earthquake. I think that it’s an option that’s definitely worth considering—and ultimately, given funding constraints it may be the only option that’s realistically available for the next few decades.

    My real worry about planning to retire the Viaduct, without looking at alternatives that don’t involve new capacity, is that we’ll plan for a tunnel and wait decades to cobble together the financing. Then, one of two things could happen. Either we get sick of waiting for the money for the gold-plated tunnel, and rebuild a cheaper structure that leaves the waterfront a corpse. Or, we wake up one morning and find that nature has retired the Viaduct for us—long before we’re ready to deal with the consequences.