Apparently Seattle city officials are fuming about this, but Gov. Gregoire has declared that the idea of replacing Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel is, officially, dead.
Now, I’m obviously an outsider to these sorts of debates; maybe “dead” doesn’t really mean dead. But it seems to me that the tunnel has been dead for a while—or, if not completely dead, at least in critical condition, and hanging on by the sheer force of will of a handful of politicians.
But perhaps the tunnel’s apparent death sentence opens up as many questions than it resolves. You see, the state still has a little over $2 billion in transportation package money slated for replacing the Viaduct.
So now that the city’s preferred Viaduct alternative has cratered, what happens to the cash?
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Again, as an outsider, it seems like powers-that-be are giving serious consideration to only 2 options:
1. Force the city to accept a new and bigger elevated highway. Some folks, obviously, think that Seattle will descend into gridlock if the Viaduct’s capacity isn’t replaced. But the support for “The Big Ugly” seems pretty thin, while the opposition is fierce and committed. After all of the rancor that the tunnel decision has caused, I don’t expect the state to try to force city officials into accepting a bigger highway along the waterfront.
2. Spend the money on widening SR-520. The floating bridge across Lake Washington is in just as bad shape as the Viaduct, and is just as vulnerable in an earthquake—but there’s not as much money in the pipeline for SR-520 as there is for the Viaduct. So the state could reprogram the Viaduct money to upgrade 520. BUT—and there’s always a but—the state wants to widen 520 from 4 lanes to 6, and that has the potential to cause nearly as much rancor as the tunnel decision did. If the last, oh, three decades or so of Seattle transportation debate has taught us anything, it’s that putting big highways smack in the middle of established (and wealthy) Seattle neighborhoods is going to be tough. Really tough. Plus, widening the highway is going to make it harder, or perhaps even impossible, for Seattle to live up to its climate commitments—especially since transportation is far and away the city’s biggest source of climate-warming emissions.
In my mind, there really ought to be a third option on the table. Perhaps the state should consider trimming back on its 520 ambitions—say, keeping the new SR-520 at 4 lanes, just like the current one—and use some of the savings in construction and legal costs to deal with the Viaduct corridor. As Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat points out, it may be possible to keep people and freight moving through the Alaskan Way corridor by doing “a thousand little things“—everything from boosting transit to fixing particular intersections to tweaking the arrangement of bus stops to giving incentives for carpools. The “thousand little things” strategy would undoubtedly cost less than rebuilding the highway, but would still cost something. And the money that’s already slated for the Viaduct is a good place to start looking.
So maybe—just maybe—the state should hold off on a decision about what to do with the Viaduct cash until it figures out whether it can fix two transportation problems for the price of one.