One-Fourth of a Viaduct
July 31, 2002

Maria Tomchick

The City of Seattle is currently studying options to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Last week, the city council voted 7-2 to support the most expensive option: a cut-and-cover tunnel along the waterfront that would cost between $10-$12 billion.

The two dissenting votes were cast by Judy Nicastro and Nick Licata. Licata explained his vote in a current issue of his e-mail newsletter to constituents (Urban Politics #136, 7/17/02). He gave two reasons. First of all, the Department of Transportation estimates that there's a 1 in 20 chance that the Viaduct could be closed permanently due to an earthquake, yet they have provided no details to explain this statement or how they can now predict the frequency and severity of earthquakes when seismologists can't. Secondly, he believes that a retrofit--i.e., rebuilding an elevated structure similar to one we have now with some improvements at both ends and a new seawall--would be more cost effective and still satisfy our seismic needs.

He has a good point. The State Department of Transportation has been quick to explain that the current Viaduct sits on loose fill that could be a problem during a large earthquake. Most folks have been equally quick to blame the 2000 quake for weakening the Viaduct, which now leans three inches off-center in one area. However, a DOT report says that the damage has occurred over time and is not just related to the 2000 earthquake. This makes it unclear whether another earthquake would completely close down the structure.

In addition, the DOT has not explained the seismic risk to a tunnel built in loose fill versus a new elevated structure.

I initially liked the idea of burying the Viaduct. It is an eyesore and it does cut off much of downtown from the waterfront. As a bus-riding, bike-riding, pedestrian non-car-owner I'd love to see Seattle reclaim its waterfront, especially if it means more open space, parks, and bike trails.

However, the cost may be prohibitive. Currently, there's no money to replace the Viaduct. If Referendum 51 passes this November, only half a billion of that money will go for the Viaduct project. If the regional transportation package reaches the ballot next spring and passes, it would provide only $1.5 billion. That leaves at least an $8 billion shortfall. Where's the money going to come from? The federal government, which is running up a huge deficit? The state government, which is facing a $1 billion budget shortfall next year? Local taxpayers, who are facing the second highest unemployment rate in the nation in the midst of a recession?

We spend so much time analyzing and criticizing mass transit projects like Sound Transit and the monorail, but are spending no time at all questioning the need for a $12 billion boondoggle on the waterfront. Unlike Sound Transit or the monorail, a replacement for the Viaduct simply cannot be built and operated in stages. The plan has to be comprehensive, cost-effective, and workable from the get-go. Yet local politicians are falling for a pie-in-the-sky tunnel. And not just any tunnel; they want the most expensive option available.

There are several groups putting pressure on local agencies to go ahead with the most expensive option. One look at the composition of the advisory committee working on the Viaduct plan shows that developers, building trade unions, trucking and transport companies, port commissioners, and businesses that would benefit from connecting to the waterfront have the majority vote.

In addition, the issue of connecting South Lake Union properties to Lower Queen Anne, the Seattle Center, and the Experience Music Project museum has Paul Allen's Vulcan, Inc. backing an expensive tunnel option (including a plan to replace the Battery Street tunnel). Vulcan wants to build a grand waterfront park on South Lake Union; there's a plan afoot to flood the Battery Street tunnel so that waterfront ferries can connect from the downtown waterfront to the South Lake Union park.

Proponents call this "fixing the Mercer Mess." While it would be great to reconnect streets in the Mercer area across Aurora Avenue and make Mercer a two-way thoroughfare, this option isn't even included in the DOT's option to rebuild an elevated Viaduct. Why the hell not?

Before we jump off a fiscal cliff, we should thoroughly examine all of our options. If we have to do it with mass transit projects, we should do it with the Viaduct, too.

To view the DOT's different options for replacing the Viaduct and comment on them, visit