Transportation planners whittled their catalog of Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement options down to two on Thursday, but Gov. Christine Gregoire said she's not ruling anything out at this point.
Transportation planners whittled their list of Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement options down to two on Thursday, but Gov. Christine Gregoire said she’s not ruling anything out at this point.
“For me everything is still on the table,” Gregoire said, noting that she’s been busy trying to write a state budget and is now focused on making a final decision about the viaduct by Dec. 31.
Transportation planners from the state, King County and the city of Seattle presented the governor and other elected officials with two options:
• A “surface and transit” plan that features three southbound lanes on Alaskan Way and three northbound lanes on Western Avenue.
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• An elevated bypass highway that has two lanes in each direction, running side by side on independent bridge structures — the cheapest of the highway scenarios, the state says. It would include a Western Avenue exit to Belltown, Seattle Center and Interbay.
Gone from the list is any near-term proposal for a tunnel to move traffic along the waterfront. That option is just too expensive, the state says.
And there’s another proposal that transportation experts have apparently ruled out, but politicians cannot — House Speaker Frank Chopp’s plan to build a four-lane elevated viaduct covered by a park, with buildings underneath. The city hates it, but Chopp is a force that can’t be ignored.
Gregoire said Chopp’s proposal is not off the table. House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, agreed, saying she believes Chopp still considers it viable. “We’ll probably be dealing with Frank’s ideas,” she said.
Chopp could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The surface-transit option is estimated to cost $3.3 billion, and the elevated version $3.5 billion. That’s higher than earlier estimates because improvements to Interstate 5, local streets and transit have been added.
The figures include about $1.1 billion already budgeted for a Sodo interchange, Battery Street Tunnel safety improvements and other work to be finished by 2012, before construction at the central waterfront.
State lawmakers have earmarked $2.8 billion for the viaduct-replacement project, funded by state gasoline taxes and federal bridge grants.
Under the new options, another $500 million to $800 million still would be needed, depending on which alternative is picked.
The announcement Thursday did not say where that money would come from, but Gregoire reiterated that no one should expect more money from the state.
The proposed surface plan would add bus routes to Delridge and Lake City, along with more electric-powered buses, streetcars, park-and-ride projects and trip-reduction programs. The elevated version includes many of the same transit improvements, but not as many buses and I-5 work.
But state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said the state money can’t be used for increases in Metro bus service that are part of the surface-transit package, because the state constitution requires gas taxes to go toward highways.
“There’s been no decision on, if transit service is part of the package, how that gets paid for,” she said.
The proposals also don’t appear eligible for federal stimulus funding being considered by President-elect Obama, Hammond said, partly because construction can’t start within six months.
Interstate 5 work would include squeezing an additional lane of traffic each way through downtown, as well as rearranging downtown ramps to improve traffic flow, Hammond said.
The state Department of Transportation (DOT) dropped the idea of a bored tunnel for now, but said it could be built later as a “stand alone” project along with the surface-transit option. A bored tunnel is drilled beneath the surface.
A public forum on the proposals is planned for 5 p.m. Monday at Town Hall in Seattle.
Quake showed weakness
Leaders and the public have been arguing about a viaduct replacement since at least 2001, when the Nisqually earthquake caused slight sinking, highlighting the vulnerability of what is now a 55-year-old highway.
Representatives from the state, city and county have worked for more than a year to come up with a replacement after Seattle voters in 2007 killed two competing viaduct-replacement plans, a cut-and-cover tunnel and another aerial structure. A cut-and-cover tunnel involves digging a giant trench and then covering it.
Studies show the surface-street alternatives would be the slowest way to get through downtown Seattle. Thursday’s version shows 28 traffic signals and a 30 mph speed limit. An elevated structure would be the fastest with a 50 mph speed limit. That option also includes a surface street along the waterfront with two lanes in each direction.
The surface plan creates a strip of open space 104 feet wide at the central waterfront. Neither version includes a waterfront streetcar; the city endorses a streetcar on First Avenue instead.
Traffic near the Pike Place Market would increase under the surface version. To help offset that problem, the state suggests a one-block northbound underpass for Western Avenue at Virginia Street, next to Victor Steinbrueck Park.
Chamber prefers tunnel
Environmentalists have been pushing the surface-street plan and the city, realizing its hope for a tunnel would be too expensive, agrees.
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels wouldn’t say Thursday which option he supported. But on Wednesday he said his favorite idea would be a merger of various surface options.
Many industry officials want another elevated highway so trucks can travel quickly from Ballard and Interbay to Sodo and other southern locations.
The Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Seattle Association and the King County Labor Council support a tunnel that would move traffic and open up the waterfront.
Tayloe Washburn, board chairman at the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, said he didn’t think either option announced Thursday would satisfy the Legislature or interest groups with a stake in the project.
“We’re only in the third inning of a nine inning game,” he said. “The conversation will continue.”
Dave Freiboth, head of the King County Labor Council, said that if either of the two alternatives moves forward “there will be a political dysfunctional meltdown. We’ll be right back at each other’s throats.”
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