The Alaskan Way Viaduct is so compromised the state needs to consider tearing it down, even if it doesn't have the money to replace it. That's the tough talk coming...

Share story

The Alaskan Way Viaduct is so compromised the state needs to consider tearing it down, even if it doesn’t have the money to replace it.

That’s the tough talk coming from Seattle City Hall, which wants the state to replace the elevated highway with a tunnel.

“Do you want to be the responsible public official when the next earthquake hits and it collapses?” asked Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis. “We could be like the feds and the levees in New Orleans and ignore the risk.”

The viaduct was damaged in the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, and the state says it must be replaced but that it does not have the $4 billion to build a tunnel, or even the $3 billion needed to replace an elevated structure.

The 9.5-cent-a-gallon gas tax the Legislature passed this year dedicated $2 billion to replace the viaduct, but that would be erased if voters approve Initiative 912, which would repeal the tax increase. The initiative will be on the November ballot.

If I-912 is approved, Ceis said, the state needs to strongly consider tearing the viaduct down. “Structurally, you cannot just leave the viaduct alone,” he said. “It’s at the end of its useful life.”

State Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said there’s no serious talk about removing the viaduct if there’s no money to rebuild it, and the Legislature would never support the idea.

“We don’t want to see 912 spin off into the political tensions of the viaduct,” he said.

State Rep. Helen Somers, D-Seattle, longtime chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, said tearing down the viaduct and not replacing it is neither feasible nor acceptable.

“It would have a huge negative impact on the commuter, the Port, the business community, and they wouldn’t support just tearing it down,” she said. “I cannot believe the city would propose it.”

A year ago, the state did a study to see what would happen if the viaduct was torn down and not replaced. It found traffic along Alaskan Way would more than quadruple and the number of cars on downtown streets would increase as much as 50 percent. Gridlock on Interstate 5 would result.

To improve the waterfront, the city wants to replace the viaduct with a tunnel. That’s also the state’s preferred alternative. But some lawmakers support another double-decker highway because it’s cheaper.

House Transportation Chairman Ed Murray said earlier this month that if Initiative 912 fails, the Legislature might give the city a deadline for coming up with the extra money for a tunnel.

If it failed to meet the deadline, Murray said, the state money could be used only for a new elevated structure.

And Gov. Christine Gregoire said she told Mayor Greg Nickels recently that the state is prepared to move ahead on rebuilding the viaduct and that the city would have to find the extra money if it wants to build a tunnel.

She said she didn’t give the city a deadline, but she said she doesn’t want any “nonsense talk” about holding out indefinitely for the tunnel.

“You can’t keep waiting for the pot of gold to arrive,” Gregoire said.

If I-912 is defeated, Gregoire said, she will instruct the Department of Transportation to move “full steam ahead” on replacing the viaduct.

Nickels noted the state and city have taken steps to shore up the existing viaduct, but he said they can’t keep doing that much longer.

“We’re keeping a close eye on it,” he said. “But it’s dying. It’s just not viable to think that we’re going to be able to prop this sucker up for the long term.”

MacDonald said Ceis is trying to stake out an early position on the viaduct, “but I’m much more interested in getting the project done than entering into this speculation. It’s not as simple as the city deciding to tear it down.”

Both the city and the state have been working on contingency plans should the viaduct be closed for safety reasons.

Seattle Times staff reporter Ralph Thomas contributed to this report.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com