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Seattle viaduct replacement: Is it politically impossible?

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on July 31, 2010 at 5:39 pm |
July 30, 2010 5:43 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

If Seattle isn’t serious about replacing the quake-damaged Alaskan Way viaduct, how serious should the rest of Washington be about it?

Next year will bring the 10th anniversary of the Nisqually earthquake and the 10th anniversary of the engineering report that the viaduct had to be rebuilt or replaced – lest it collapse in the next big shake.

Despite nearly a decade of facing what some would consider a dire threat, Seattleites seem poised for yet another Big Dither.

Mayor Mike McGinn is doing his utmost to unravel a hard-won agreement between the governor and the city leadership to reroute state Route 99 through a tunnel beneath downtown Seattle.

He makes an easy target with his ecotopian vision of a bottlenecked surface corridor whose engineered congestion would force commuters onto bicycles and buses. But a lot of other greenish Seattleites also think that’s a spectacular idea, and some are threatening a city initiative to stop the tunnel and start the arguments all over again.

Another group of Seattleites has reportedly launched a competing anti-tunnel initiative. Its leader wants to rebuild the viaduct, a third option supposedly abandoned when the tunnel deal was signed in January 2009.

Round and round and round we go.

If the tunnel’s enemies succeed in rekindling the Big Dither, the rebuild-the-viaduct option would best protect the pocketbooks and interests of the rest of the state.

Its costs are reasonably predictable, while the tunnel could produce overruns – especially since McGinn and Co. seem hell-bent on postponing the decision until the price of financing, labor, steel and concrete surge back up as the economy recovers. Then they intend to stick state taxpayers with the overruns.

The bottleneck is an absolute non-starter; legislators shouldn’t contemplate spending a penny on it. Choking off state Route 99 would shove traffic out onto Interstate 5, strangling that vital artery of state commerce and travel.

For that matter, state Route 99 itself is a vital corridor for Seattle-based industries. Washington’s economy needs both those highways working.

But one question hangs over all of these issues: If Seattle can’t make a decision on state Route 99, and if its infighting and indecision effectively prevents the state from moving forward until costs soar, how long should the Legislature keep hundreds of millions of dollars on tap for the project?

In an interview Thursday with seattlepi.com, Gov. Chris Gregoire framed the issue pointedly:
“No, it’s not Seattle’s money,” she said. “It’s the state’s money. We’re not building a local road. We’re building a state highway. So the money belongs to the state.

“And let me just assure you, the debate is always there in that Legislature … ‘if Seattle doesn’t want it, we want it.’ And there are huge demands everywhere for it. So, it’s a fight to keep people’s hands off that money … Many other road and bridge jobs are starved for money.”

At some point, it will be time to pull the plug on this snake-bit project. Ten years after the quake is not too soon to be asking when.

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