Seattle voters probably won't get to vote in November on whether the Alaskan Way Viaduct should be replaced by a tunnel or an elevated structure...

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Seattle voters probably won’t get to vote in November on whether the Alaskan Way Viaduct should be replaced by a tunnel or an elevated structure, after the costs of both soared in new estimates released Wednesday.

The price tag for a new, elevated structure to replace the aging viaduct has grown from $2.4 billion to $2.8 billion and the cost of building a tunnel has gone from a high of $3.6 billion to an estimated $4.6 billion, according to a report released by the state.

At the same time, the price for a new Highway 520 bridge jumped even more — 41 percent — from $3.1 billion to $4.4 billion.

Replacing the viaduct and the bridge would be among the biggest transportation projects the region has seen.

The next step is for Gov. Christine Gregoire to choose either a new elevated structure or a tunnel to replace the viaduct. That decision is expected by the end of the year. A decision on the 520 bridge project is further down the road.

Mayor Greg Nickels, who had supported a public advisory vote on a replacement for the viaduct, said the new numbers from the Washington Department of Transportation (DOT) add so much uncertainty that the timing is wrong to put the issue to voters.

Sobering figures on 520 and the viaduct


How much did costs increase? An Alaskan Way Tunnel is now estimated at $4.6 billion, or $1 billion higher than before. A new elevated highway would be $2.8 billion, a $400 million increase since last year. For the Highway 520 floating bridge, a six-lane replacement would be $4.4 billion, or a $1.3 billion increase.

Why replace them? The viaduct is 53 years old, the bridge 43 years old. Both are wearing out, they lack modern safety shoulders and ramps, and both could be ruined in a strong earthquake.

Whose decision? Gov. Christine Gregoire will choose the replacement options. However, either an Alaskan Way Tunnel or new 520 bridge would probably rely on voters or state lawmakers approving new taxes.

“It had been my preference to go to the voters, but it’s not the kind of question that ought to go on the ballot,” he said.

Nickels has encouraged citizens to reject a “Big Ugly” rebuild and embrace a tunnel so that the central waterfront would be more attractive. But with costs now $1 billion higher, a tunnel may be more difficult to sell.

Councilman Nick Licata, who supports the elevated structure and wants the public vote, predicted the council will vote Friday to bypass a public vote.

“They don’t want the public to say the king has no clothes,” he said. He speculated that Nickels opposes a vote because he’s afraid the high cost will kill the tunnel. “He doesn’t want a vote because the tunnel is going to go down in flames.”

The higher estimates “are not good news,” said state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald. “There’s no sugar-coating. It’s been a fairly painful process.”

He said the increased cost of a new 520 bridge is even bigger news than the viaduct.

So far, $573 million has been set aside for a new bridge. Local elected officials are not expected to close the gap in a planned regional transportation package on next year’s ballot.

Viaduct tunnel: Why the costs went up

A breakdown of some increased costs

Materials and labor: up to $860 million

• Includes steel, concrete, copper, energy and labor.

High inflation: up to $650 million

• Cost increases of up to 6 percent a year, and delays.

Market uncertainty: up to $240 million

• The bidding climate is considered difficult, because contractors are so busy with other projects nationwide, including reconstruction of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Other risks: up to $140 million

Scope changes: up to $20 million

• A lid over the highway at Pike Place Market would increase costs.

For Highway 520, the issues are similar, except for environmental issues, such as fish protection, and costs to treat stormwater from the bridge pontoons.

As for the viaduct, a tunnel may be affordable at $4.6 billion, by mixing state gas-tax money with local sources the city is seeking, according to MacDonald and Leroy Baker, a member of a state-created expert review panel.

Nickels said the finance plan is “still doable,” because he assumes money will be available from city utility fees, the Port of Seattle, regional highway taxes and a local property tax on landowners who would benefit from a tunnel.

But the new $4.6 billion number could rise. It’s a midrange, or “likely,” estimate based on a 4 percent inflation rate. If the state assumes 6 percent inflation, its “high” figure is $5.5 billion, well beyond Nickels’ financing plan.

The state created new estimates after the expert panel criticized the DOT for using overly optimistic inflation figures. DOT’s original 520 bridge numbers were devised before Hurricane Katrina, which has increased construction costs nationwide. The earlier viaduct numbers assumed only 2.4 percent inflation.

MacDonald said the responsible approach is to use the “likely” numbers because “at the end of the day, we must do these projects.”

The 53-year-old viaduct was damaged in a 2001 earthquake and is considered near the end of its life span. Similarly, the floating bridge is 43 years old and state engineers think it is as vulnerable as the viaduct to earthquakes, or could be damaged in a severe windstorm.

Rift over tunnel

The Legislature told the Seattle City Council this year to either choose between an elevated highway or tunnel by ordinance, or put an advisory measure to city voters.

While the governor has the final say, construction of a tunnel or a new 520 bridge would need voter-approved regional taxes.

As recently as Monday, council members were planning an advisory ballot measure, but that seems doomed.

Jan Drago, chairwoman of the council’s Transportation Committee, said voters elected the council to make the tough decisions. She predicted that when the council takes up the issue Friday, it will pass an ordinance supporting the tunnel — without a citizen vote.

Nickels said that even with the higher tunnel numbers unveiled Wednesday, the city’s financing plan would produce enough money to contribute the city’s share.

If Gregoire pushes for a cheaper elevated highway, the city may threaten to delay it. Seattle thinks it can obstruct street-use and other permits needed for construction of an elevated highway.

The state, which hopes to begin construction in two years, has said every month of delay costs $10 million. Only two of the nine City Council members, David Della and Licata, have backed the elevated option. Others prefer either a tunnel or no highway at all.

Cary Moon, co-founder of the anti-highway People’s Waterfront Coalition, said the tunnel appears unaffordable, and she would recruit tunnel backers to the no-highway cause. The coalition thinks thousands of motorists would switch to transit or to an improved system of surface streets.

High cost of delay

Asked where additional money would come from to replace the viaduct, MacDonald had no answer. “I’m not trying to figure out how to take the next step,” he said. “Most people have accepted that the state is responsible for replacing capacity in that corridor.”

So far, the state has committed $2.2 billion for either highway option but won’t pay extra for a tunnel.

Several officials said the worst outcome would be more delay.

“The thing that all of us elected officials have to focus on is lives are at stake,” said Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle. “We have got to replace these structures, we’ve got to find the money, we’ve got to stop fighting before lives are lost.”

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com. Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com.