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Don’t let tunnel critics drive up costs with delays

Post by Cheryl Tucker on March 30, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
March 30, 2011 4:38 pm
The Alaskan Way Viaduct along Seattle's waterfront could collapse in a big quake. (Staff file photo)

This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.

If dithering were an art form, Seattle would be Salvador Dali.

That city’s infighting over replacement of the 58-year-old Alaskan Way Viaduct – a state highway – has taken on a surreal quality with attempts to kill the $2 billion deep bore tunnel proposal via an August ballot measure.

Tunnel critics are hoping to overturn the City Council’s 2009 decision to move forward with the project. But it’s unclear whether that vote would even be legal. The state has already signed contracts with a consortium to build the tunnel, which has the support of city business and labor leaders, a City Council majority, King County government, the Port of Seattle and state lawmakers. Current plans are to start excavating the tunnel’s entrance in late summer.

And if not a tunnel, what? Many tunnel critics prefer a new or repaired viaduct. Others – primarily transit advocates, environmentalists and Mayor Mike McGinn – want to tear down the viaduct and fund new and improved surface streets.

The theory behind the last option is that without the viaduct or tunnel, people will get out of their cars and use alternative transportation, such as mass transit and bicycles. What’s more likely to happen is that most of the drivers who now take the state Route 99 viaduct would switch over to Interstate 5 – making that crucial transportation link even more crowded than it is now for commuters and freight haulers.

No option has the support of a majority. A recent Elway Poll shows the most support (38 percent) for the revamped viaduct option, with the tunnel a close second at 35 percent and McGinn’s surface street option at 21 percent. This is one of the reasons the arguments have gone on so long and why leaving the decision to Seattle voters is a recipe for endless indecision.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and any solution keeps getting more expensive. Department of Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said a delay in the agreement taking effect would cost $54 million through August and $20 million per month after that. The DOT has already spent more than $200 million on such pre-construction costs as engineering, bid documents and land. Money wasted on the viaduct replacement is money that isn’t being spent on other crucial projects statewide.

Seattle’s viaduct battle would be humorous if it weren’t so potentially lethal. Damaged 10 years ago in the 6.8 Nisqually Quake, the viaduct needs to be replaced before a bigger quake closer to Seattle brings it down on top of thousands of motorists. In 2010, state highway engineers put the odds of a collapse at 1 in 10 in the next 10 years.

A severe quake will happen; it’s just a matter of when. The region needs to be taking every possible step to minimize risks like the one posed by the dangerous viaduct. Stop the dithering and build the dang tunnel.

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