Seattle Courant

Viaduct Watch: Agreeing to disagree

By Bryan Buckalew
January 27, 2009 09:01PM

Earlier this month, Gov. Chris Gregoire, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and King County Executive Ron Sims agreed to replace the viaduct with a $4.25 billion deep-bore tunnel. That’s easier said than done though.

Let's look back.

By 2006, it was common knowledge that the viaduct needed closing. Increases in traffic, continued foundation settlement, the threat of another earthquake - all of it pointed toward a clear conclusion: replace it.

The question that remained was how.

In March of 2007, voters rejected a proposal to swap the viaduct with a $3.4 billion, four-lane, cut-and-cover tunnel. The cut-and-cover plan seemed too … too invasive, too much.

Gregoire, Nickels and Sims decided to take a step back and examine the options again. They themselves couldn’t agree on which idea seemed best. Gregoire liked the idea of an elevated highway; Nickels supported the tunnel, and Sims was a surface man.

Each had transportation experts look into solutions. A 29-member panel comprising business, environmental and neighborhood interests was organized to look over the shoulders of the experts. Twenty-one months passed.

In December 2008, two recommendations blossomed: build an elevated highway or construct a surface route while simultaneously increasing public transportation and improving I-5. The 29-member panel endorsed the surface plan, if only loosely, and encouraged Gregoire to look into the tunnel option again.

Which she did, and after talking with some of the people who would be affected, she decided that a surface route was a bad idea.

So it was back to the tunnel or the elevated highway. House Speaker Frank Chopp favored the idea of an elevated highway, but most politicians were leery of hopping on board with him because they feared the political backlash that might develop as a result of any plans that carried a whiff of suggestion to wall off the waterfront.

Meanwhile, the tunnel option evolved from a $3.4 billion dollar cut-and-cover project in 2007 to a $4.25 billion deep-bore project in 2009. And there was also growing opposition from local environmental groups who said the tunnel would serve as an incentive for people to drive instead of taking public transportation, which surface streets, they said, would do.

And, of course, there's the issue of paying for the project. A key element to the plan is passing a 1 percent (or $200 on a $20,000 car) motor vehicle excise tax. The tax could raise an estimated $120 million a year for King County, and Council could approve the tax without voter approval, but to do so, the Legislature would have to grant them the authority.

And that’s where it gets tricky. Lawmakers aren’t sure that any tax increases in the middle of a recession are wise. Plus House Speaker Frank Chopp and House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler don’t like the tunnel idea.

So as the end of January draws nigh, Gregoire, Nickels and Sims support the tunnel. Environmental groups prefer a surface route. Chopp is sticking to the elevated highway. The Legislature has to sign the check.

And all the while, the viaduct creaks and groans under the weight of 110,000 cars a day.