State says no tunnel; mayor still wants vote
Seattle Times staff reporters
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' dream of replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a four-lane tunnel is as dead as anything gets in Olympia.
Gov. Christine Gregoire, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate and some Republicans joined together Tuesday and said no way, never.
Instead they called for a new viaduct to replace the old viaduct.
And still, ballots are about to go out asking Seattle voters for their opinions -- whether to support a tunnel or an elevated structure.
State leaders' rejection of the tunnel came hours after the state Department of Transportation issued a letter declaring a four-lane tunnel too dangerous to merit further study. The tunnel concept, in which the shoulders would be used as exit lanes at rush hour, has "serious operational and safety problems," the DOT said.
Seattle officials complained DOT was biased against a tunnel and ignored the experience of many cities that operate tunnels with little or no space for cars to pull over.
The reaction in Olympia was striking in that lawmakers spoke with one voice, where before there was ambiguity. Nickels and other tunnel supporters had taken advantage of any political uncertainty to press their case.
But there was no hedging Tuesday.
Gregoire said moving forward with the tunnel "would simply be irresponsible. ... Today we need to move forward with the one option that meets safety standards and is fiscally responsible: the elevated structure."
As for safety, she said, "The DOT review has shown that the hybrid tunnel proposal does not meet state and federal safety standards. Furthermore, an accident where people could not escape this tunnel could prove catastrophic."
Final decisions rest with the state, not the city. Still, Marianne Bichsel, a spokeswoman for Nickels, urged citizens to participate in the all-mail vote. Ballots will be distributed next week and must be postmarked by March 13.
"The voters need to decide whether they're going to allow Olympia to shove a bigger elevated structure onto Seattle's waterfront without their say. The voters of Seattle need to step up, and express their opinions on that."
Legislative leaders questioned the value of the city vote.
House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said the city should stop the election. Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said that even if voters overwhelmingly support the city's tunnel proposal, she can't see the state abiding by their decision.
Seattle City Council President Nick Licata, who supports rebuilding the viaduct, said he called the King County Elections Office to see how the city could cancel the public vote, which costs $1 million to conduct. "How can we ask voters to vote for something we know is seen as worthless by state legislators?" he said.
Support from a majority of the council would be needed to cancel the election.
The surface option
Lawmakers haven't totally ruled out the prospect of just tearing down the old, earthquake-damaged viaduct, then improving surface streets and transit.
"I don't think the door has been completely closed," Brown said.
State Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said the option of a surface boulevard, instead of a viaduct, would require more study. "It's unlikely we're going to get to the end without being pressed harder on the surface [option]," he said.
The problem, he said, is that a surface road would reduce capacity. Gregoire has previously rejected a surface option, and insisted on preserving one of Seattle's two main north-south highways.
A surface-street option is the pro-tunnel City Council's official second choice. In addition, King County Executive Ron Sims has pushed the idea. House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, has said he's open to it, if the elevated highway doesn't move ahead.
The tunnel's demise might help Cary Moon, co-founder of the People's Waterfront Coalition, which wants a highway-free waterfront. The group asks people to vote "no" on both a tunnel and a new viaduct.
However, Moon said the report shows how deeply the DOT has "dug in their heels" in favor of a six-lane highway, so it may be difficult to promote a nonhighway alternative. On the other hand, with the tunnel option fading, she predicts its backers will embrace her group's vision of improved streets, more transit and less automobile use.
Nickels has argued that a tunnel would create open space and reduce noise along Elliott Bay.
He supported a six-lane version last year, but after cost estimates soared to $4.6 billion, the city thought up a cheaper four-lane concept, and persuaded the state's viaduct team to examine it in early January. A ballpark $3.4 billion estimate emerged -- and the city touted a $1.2 billion savings.
The four-lane version would use safety shoulders as exit lanes during rush hour, to accommodate 113,000 daily trips, similar to the viaduct's current capacity, city transportation managers say.
But in the report released Tuesday, the state DOT said clogs would occur, safety would be jeopardized when disabled cars block the highway, and emergency crews would take longer to arrive.
Seattle officials reply that reducing speed to 35 mph at busy times would allow safe operation.
City police and fire departments have said safety would be better than it is today.
Lawmakers had asked DOT to also study whether the $3.4 billion estimate was credible, but the agency said there wasn't time to do so.
Instead, the state concluded a four-lane tunnel was simply too hazardous to consider.
"We didn't trust the tunnel," MacDonald said.
The city has bitterly complained about being excluded from nine days of recent DOT studies.
"This document doesn't provide us with any new information," said Grace Crunican, city transportation director.
Other cities' tunnels
A state-appointed expert review panel said last month that a narrower tunnel "shows promise," and a member, Dave McCracken, said Tuesday the state ought to obtain detailed cost breakdowns for it.
McCracken said he considers the city's proposal to be safe.
Several tunnels in the U.S. have zero or reduced-width shoulders, something allowed by national design standards to reduce costs, city officials say.
European cities are experimenting with so-called "hard-running shoulders" that become traffic lanes at rush hour, reducing travel times up to 20 percent. Washington state DOT, which participated in a federal study tour of those projects last summer, will soon study whether putting traffic on shoulders makes sense on freeways in Seattle and its suburbs.
Meanwhile, Seattle City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, an architect, said the city would resort to lawsuits, if necessary, to oppose a new viaduct, which he would fight "to my dying day."
Pro-tunnel Councilwoman Jan Drago vowed political retaliation against the governor.
Former Gov. Gary Locke, a tunnel supporter, called for a collective timeout. "Everyone needs to step back and look at all the ideas in calm and deliberative fashion," he said.
Copyright © The Seattle Times Company