I haven’t written much recently about one of my pet obsessions, Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct—perhaps because there hasn’t really been much to mention.  Now there is.

From what I hear, the Seattle city council is considering putting an advisory vote on the Viaduct on this November’s ballot.  Voters would only get to choose one of two options:  rebuilding the highway along Seattle’s waterfront pretty much as it is now, or rebuilding the highway and sinking a portion of it underground.

Why a vote?  And why just those two options?

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  • Basically, the city and state have reached a stalemate over the tunnel vs. the aerial. Most (though not all) city officials prefer a tunnel.  Understandably so:  nobody wants their legacy to be a noisy concrete blight smack in the center of some of the city’s most valuable real estate.

    But the extra billion or so for a tunnel just isn’t there yet.  Transportation planners keep trying to pare the tunnel’s cost by shortening the segment that’s actually underground; but that just makes the project less attractive. Plus, cost overruns and water-leakage headaches associated with Boston’s Big Dig have soured some folks on the prospects of a waterfront tunnel.

    So, in essence, the city councilors want to punt the issue back to voters.

    In one way of looking at things, this makes sense.  If Seattle residents are going to have to live with (and pay for) the thing, they should have a chance to vote on it.

    But in another way of looking at things, the vote is rigged: there are only 2 options on the ballot.

    Not only are those options poorly defined (most voters won’t know that a rebuilt aerial would be even more imposing than the existing one, or that the underground section of the tunnel would be so short), it seems to me that an either-or vote stacks the deck, by excluding all rival ideas other than the “official” options.

    To me, that seems like excluding minor, third-party candidates from an election:  it narrows the debate, rather than broadening it; and inhibits democratic choice rather than fostering it.  Yeah, minor parties sometimes act like spoilers, a problem that a smarter voting system could help solve.  Still, excluding minor parties from a ballot seems inimical to open and democratic governance.  Just so with policy options—restricting the debate to two choices simply narrows our minds.

    And there are at least 2 other major options out there that voters could consider:  shoring up the existing structure, rather than replacing it; and using a combination of street and transit improvements to replace the viaduct’s capacity, without rebuilding a highway.

    I don’t think much of the former option—as I understand it, most seismic engineers who’ve looked at it have said that the whole structure is seismically vulnerable.  Perhaps voters would be willing to forego safety concerns to save a billion or so; but it’s not something I’m too comfortable with.  (See the comment thread here for more.)

    But the second option seems very much alive in my mind.  Especially because of this (pdf link):  the state’s plan to “Keep People and Freight Moving During Construction.”  Basically, the viaduct will be closed for anywhere from 18 months to 4 years during construction.  And the state has laid out a series of steps to deal with traffic during the interim, including:

    • improving transit access, and expand water taxi service, from West Seattle to downtown
    • boosting transit by adding more bus routes, bus stops, and bus priority streets
    • shift event times at the stadiums and Seattle Center to avoid clogging traffic
    • improve traffic throughput north of downtown, especially at Mercer and Denny
    • boost park and rides north of downtown, to reduce car travel into the center of the city

    So if that sort of thing—improving streets and transit—will keep us moving for up to 4 years, couldn’t it last for longer?  Seems to me that switching some money from the viaduct reconstruction budget to an even more robust streets and transit plan could do even more to maintain mobility—but still save a billion or more, compared with even the lowest-cost of the highway options.

    Two final thoughts:

    First, from a climate perspective, vehicle travel is Seattle’s #1 contribution to climate change. The most important thing we can do in Seattle to pare back our emissions is to shorten car trips, and shift some of them to more fuel-efficient modes—which is going to take shifts in land use and investments in other kinds of transportation besides cars.  And that’s very hard to accomplish if we’re spending most of our spare transportation budget on highways.

    And second, putting a tunnel-vs.-aerial vote before the electorate will do exactly one thing:  help improve the prospects for the aerial.  The tunnel will have to score a really solid win for it to keep in contention—and just whisper “Big Dig” and wavering voters will swing away from the tunnel.  Even if the tunnel scores a narrow win, it can still be killed by the high cost:  voters may want it, but not want to pay for it. If cost remains an issue then the aerial goes from being an “also ran” to the next-best option.

    So if you support any option other than the aerial rebuild, it seems like a narrow, either-or vote on the tunnel vs. the aerial is against your interests.