Alaskan Way Viaduct appears to take a wrong turn

CNU, New Urban Network


The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) has long been a proponent of converting highways to boulevards in our cities. The December issue of New Urban News covered HUD TIGER grants for freeway removal in New Orleans, New York, and New Haven. Another hot freeway removal is moving closer to reality in Seattle, although the chosen solution may not be the best alternative.

The aging Alaskan Way Viaduct, which separates Elliott Bay from downtown Seattle, is in need of replacement. A variety of options exists, including replacement with another viaduct, a tunnel, or simply removal and replacement with a waterfront boulevard. In 2007 voters in Seattle came out against both a replacement viaduct and the tunnel option, but the tunnel seems to be moving ahead despite the opposition by the public and some elected officials. And although the current mayor of Seattle, Mike McGinn, opposes it, the tunnel, which is likely to cost in excess of $4 billion, is backed by the Seattle city council, Governor Christine Gregoire, the Chamber of Commerce, and notable companies like Boeing.

CNU has been involved with this issue since 2006, when Smart Mobility prepared a report, commissioned by CNU and the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), entitled “Alaskan Way Viaduct: Analysis of No-replacement Option.” The report forms the backbone of the argument against building another viaduct or a tunnel, as is currently being planned.

The Smart Mobility report indicates that 60 percent of trips on the current viaduct are accessing downtown neighborhoods, and 85 percent start or end within the city. In other words, the viaduct acts as a local street for the downtown, whereas the proposed tunnel bypasses the downtown, with just one interchange that could dump as many as 40,000-plus vehicles per day in to the historic Pioneer Square neighborhood. The 100,000 or so daily trips compares to the 1.67 million trips in to/through/within Seattle each day, or just 6 percent of the total, making the $4 billion replacement cost out of scale with other potential transportation solutions within the city.

Cary Moon represents the People’s Waterfront, a coalition endorsing a common-sense, drastically lower-cost alternative of replacing the viaduct with an urban boulevard along the waterfront. The boulevard project would be coupled with improvements to Interstate 5, located one half-mile to the east, and other public transit, bicycle, and pedestrian improvements, some of which would be along the waterfront boulevard. This solution would cost around $1 billion less than the tunnel.
Poster child for wasteful spending

Moon has numerous arguments against the tunnel option, and cost is but one. “It’s a poster child for an unnecessary, unaffordable, pocket-lining project.” She also points out that the limited-access design of the tunnel will unnecessarily inundate the historic Pioneer Square neighborhood with traffic, as noted, and that the boulevard option will reclaim the waterfront with parks and event space, recreational and retail opportunities, and improvements to connectivity in the street grid. Analysis of other bored tunnel projects shows cost overruns are likely, and Moon noted that none of the entities financing the tunnel have committed to covering cost overruns. Furthermore, the alignment of the tunnel would pass under 14 historic buildings, two of which will require demolition. As well, the Seattle city council has set a goal of being carbon neutral by 2030, but it is supporting a major highway rebuilding project through the downtown, something that should give anyone pause.

CNU maintains its belief that a downtown waterfront is no place for a freeway. Instead, endorsing an urbane urban boulevard with sidewalks, bike lanes, transit options, and maximum connections to the existing grid is the best solution for downtown Seattle. Regardless of whether the tunnel is built, the city of Seattle has committed to a waterfront boulevard, and planning is underway. The difference is the immense added cost and engineering uncertainty of the tunnel underneath, a project that has been deemed unnecessary by the Smart Mobility analysis. One need look no further than Seattle neighbors Portland and Vancouver to see how wonderful waterfront development can look — no highway is necessary for a perfectly functional downtown.

The public comment period on the environmental study for the tunnel option closed in December. In January and February the discussion will move to the state legislature, which has committed $2.4 billion through a gas tax increase. The governor and Washington State DOT are pushing to sign a contract with Tutor-Perini to begin construction ASAP. The overall project cost and potential for overruns could be a critical factor in this decision.

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