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Viaduct is out; tunnel is in

City, state, federal officials agree on plan

Tuesday, December 7, 2004



After years of debate, Seattle joined forces with the state and federal governments yesterday to say the best replacement for the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct is the most expensive option -- a six-lane tunnel.

Now more than $4 billion has to be found to pay for the project, which would dramatically alter the city's waterfront by removing what has become a Seattle icon.


What the Seattle waterfront might look like without the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Source of images: state Transportation Department, city of Seattle.

"Today we are making history," Mayor Greg Nickels told a crowd of about 100 people made up mostly of state and local officials, including Seattle City Council members. "Not since the Denny Regrade have we had such an important land-use opportunity."

It is hoped that construction of the tunnel can begin in 2009, but the idea will face opposition from groups who favor other options, including tearing the viaduct down and not replacing it at all.

The tunnel project is estimated to take seven years to complete and would force traffic to be significantly rerouted during construction.

Yesterday in the ceremony across the street from the roaring traffic on the 1950s-vintage viaduct, city and state officials said the tunnel is the best way to:

  • Maintain capacity to handle north-south traffic in the state Route 99 corridor.

  • Keep side streets clear enough for trucks to move in and out of port docks.

  • Open up long-blocked views of the waterfront and transform the viaduct land into an open public space.





The tunnel has been discussed as one of six alternatives for replacing the viaduct, which was damaged in the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. Yesterday marked the first time the city, the state Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration have stated in unison that they prefer the six-lane tunnel.

The state has studied replacing the double-deck viaduct for much of the past decade, but the effort accelerated after the earthquake cracked support piers and forced its temporary closure while the viaduct was shored up in the Pioneer Square area.

Part of the structure has sunk 4 inches since the quake, and state officials have voiced the fear that another major earthquake could close the viaduct again.

"The paramount challenge the viaduct presents is one of safety," said state Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.





After the earthquake, the state initiated regular structural inspections and joined the city and federal government in an environmental-impact study that identified five basic replacement options, ranging from the six-lane tunnel with ramps to the stadium area, to complete removal of the viaduct and dispersal of the traffic to side streets. Costs ranged from $2.5 billion to $4.1 billion.

The state also considered a proposal by the People's Waterfront Coalition that the viaduct be removed and not replaced with any new road, but the idea was rejected.

Nickels, at yesterday's gathering, said the city's central waterfront has become less industrial and more of a public gathering place, worthy of opening up with removal of the old structure.

"This region is not going to make the mistake of building another viaduct," he said.


Raising money for the tunnel project will be a major effort.

Murray and other Seattle-area legislators have said it is the state's responsibility to come up with the cost of a one-for-one replacement, but money for the higher tunnel cost will have to be found elsewhere.

Given other demands on the state's transportation system, getting the state to provide that difference "is not realistic," Murray said.

Lobbying efforts have begun to get federal money for part of the cost, but Congress and the Bush administration haven't yet agreed to an appropriation, said federal highway administrator Dan Mathis.

The city has lobbied for $1 billion from the federal government, though Mathis said it's not clear yet how much it might get.

City Councilman Richard Conlin, chairman of the council's Transportation Committee, said a local share could be raised through an additional gas tax or tolls. The cost of the project could go as high as $4.5 billion if it eventually includes the lowering of Aurora Avenue and reconnection of streets across it or improvements to arterials such as Mercer and Spokane streets.

Part of the money could come from a voter-approved Regional Transportation Improvement District package, although officials have not been able to agree on what other projects should be included in a package to be sent to voters.

Yesterday a few members of the carpenters and operating engineers unions, interested in the jobs the project would create, held up banners with their unions' insignias as the speeches were delivered. Just steps away a handful of tunnel opponents also showed up, holding up signs saying: "Rebuild Viaduct, No Tunnel."

And yesterday a Magnolia resident, Elizabeth Campbell, filed an initiative with the City Clerk's Office to prevent replacing the viaduct with a tunnel. If city officials approve the measure as to form it will become Initiative 84, and Campbell would have six months to gather the 17,229 valid signatures needed to put it on a city ballot.

"I like being up there (on the viaduct's top deck) and the view," Campbell said. "Who said transportation has to be torture? The viaduct makes me feel good when I'm driving it. What happens when a tunnel caves in?"

The sign-carrying attendees at the ceremony were from Citizens for an Elevated Solution, which will continue to press its case for replacing the viaduct with another elevated structure. The group has said the elevated replacement would cost less, be safer and allow above-ground movement of fuels to the marine industry in Ballard.

And members of the Waterfront Coalition said they'll keep making their case that the viaduct needn't be replaced with anything.

Co-chairs Grant Cogswell and Cary Moon said there are ways to improve traffic flow on Interstate 5, Spokane Street and on downtown streets to handle the traffic displaced when the viaduct closes. They said alternatives like those should be seriously studied, but haven't so far.

"If we can do this for one-tenth the cost, shouldn't we know?" Moon said.




  • Two-for-one project in which tunnel serves as sea wall.

  • Opportunities to improve waterfront as a regional destination.

  • Broader financial support than other options.

  • Maintains traffic capacity.

  • Includes ramps to Elliott and Western avenues.

  • Reduces noise.


  • Highest cost.

  • Loss of view from viaduct.

  • Flammable restrictions for vehicles and freight.


$3.4 billion to $4.1 billion. Legislators say the state might contribute $2.5 billion


2006: Issue final Environmental Impact Statement.

2007: Obtain environmental approvals. Utility relocation begins.

2008: First phase design complete. Continued utility relocation.

2009: Begin construction.

2016: Project complete.

From Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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Viaduct work would divert thousands of vehicles daily

Traffic jams ahead as engineers figure where to put them all

Wednesday, December 8, 2004



Imagine yourself traveling southbound on Aurora Avenue, passing through the Battery Street Tunnel to the Alaskan Way Viaduct at a good clip of 40 mph.

Now, imagine being detoured off Aurora three blocks north of the tunnel, diverted down Broad Street past the Space Needle and slowed to 15 mph to make a turn up a long ramp to get on the viaduct.

Sound crazy?

That route just may be the traffic conduit of the future for as long as six years, if a new six-lane tunnel is built to replace the viaduct. Construction could begin in 2009.

With this week's announcement that top officials prefer a tunnel to replace the viaduct, traffic engineers will begin work in earnest to figure out where to divert the 110,000 vehicles that use the viaduct and Alaskan Way every day.

The answers so far are that traffic would be rerouted underneath the viaduct, to the edge of the waterfront, to side streets and up a ramp linking Broad Street to the viaduct at Pike Street.

As the tunnel is completed, enough traffic to fill two-thirds of the tunnel will be shoehorned into half of it while the second half is completed.

"It doesn't matter what they build, (the choices) are all ugly in terms of traffic management," said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Transportation Research Center at the University of Washington.

Seattle, state and federal officials this week announced they prefer replacing the 51-year-old viaduct with a tunnel because the elevated viaduct has aged and been damaged by the Nisqually Quake, leaving it in danger of collapse during another major quake.

The preference doesn't rule out the possibility of replacing the viaduct with a less costly structure that would be rebuilt along the Central Waterfront and replaced by a ground-level roadway south of King Street.

Whichever choice is made, building it could take as long as eight years and will snarl traffic from side streets to the very top of the highway.

At the outset, parts of local side streets will be congested for as much as 18 months as crews begin relocating utilities, removing landscaping and making other preparations for major construction to begin.

Then the hard part starts.


In either option, state officials plan to move part of the traffic off Alaskan Way to the street under the viaduct, eliminating hundreds of parking spaces and turning that street into a temporary through route while work on a tunnel and a new sea wall progresses.

At least two lanes of traffic will be maintained on the state Route 99 corridor, on or off the viaduct, during rush hour while the work progresses.

But between those hours some lanes could close to make room for demolition and construction and parts of the viaduct could be shut completely during evening and overnight hours if it is rebuilt.

If the tunnel is built the ramp from Broad Street will take traffic to the south end of the viaduct while the north end is being removed and the west half of the new tunnel is built and the sea wall is replaced.

Once that half is done all the viaduct traffic will move into it, squeezing into four lanes where three will eventually exist, and traffic will return to surface Alaskan Way while the second half of the tunnel is done. When that occurs traffic will completely fill it.

If the viaduct is rebuilt and remains mostly above ground, traffic will be shifted under the old viaduct, onto Alaskan Way and side streets as the sea wall and viaduct work progresses.

Officials say they'll probably have to temporarily replace the parking lost during construction, but enough congestion will occur that they'll also encourage people to ride buses and car pools, work at home or shorten their work weeks to avoid the mess.

The effects are "as big as I-90 in terms of construction," said Tom Madden, the state's managing engineer for the viaduct project. "Starting now we'll look in more detail about how the traffic will be handled."

The state says the tunnel would take seven to eight years to build and the "rebuild" option six to seven years, less time than originally thought as engineers refine their estimates.

A final environmental impact statement, discussing the effects of either a tunnel or a "rebuild," is scheduled for completion two years from now.

State legislators have told Seattle officials the state could finance the cost of the rebuild, estimated at between $2.7 billion and $3.1 billion, but the city will likely have to find money to finance the added cost of the tunnel, estimated to be as high as $4.1 billion. The city is considering a variety of sources, including a gas tax and tolls.

And two citizen groups are fighting the tunnel proposal. One prefers a new elevated structure while the other is promoting removal of the viaduct with no road replacement, with travelers moving through the corridor in buses, car pools and over city streets, or eliminating unnecessary trips.


Estimated total construction time: Six to seven years

  • Stage 1: Utility relocation, preparatory work. Local street lanes closed occasionally to provide room for that work.

  • Stage 2: Two lanes of traffic kept on the viaduct during rush hours, but more lanes likely would close, and the structure would probably be shut down completely at other times, with traffic detoured. While the new sea wall is built Alaskan Way closes, and its traffic shifted to the street under the viaduct, which means motorists won't be able to park there during that time. If this option is built, 270 parking spaces will be permanently lost.

  • Stage 3: Traffic again restricted on the viaduct itself, but the squeeze also continues on Alaskan Way as traffic shifts to the west to allow contractors room to work around the viaduct.

  • Stage 4: Lane closures and traffic congestion again occur on nearby side streets as utility, landscape replacement and paving work for the project is completed.

From Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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I think it would be great if this can be accomplished. Elevated highways are the single most horrific looking and depressing structures in urban areas. However, this one doesn't trash a residential area like most of them. Instead they are trashing their waterfront!

Not long ago, I believe San Francisco removed elevated highways from their waterfront and realized a huge boost in the desirability of the area. Here is a page about it:


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Yes, the removal of the Embarcadero completely recreated that part of SF. In that case, there was no need to replace the existing highway, it was simply torn down. In Boston and Seattle, the highways are still needed, so the tunnel needs to be built.

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  • 2 weeks later...

This would be a great idea if it could be built. I think that it would help Seattle and the pros definitely outweigh the cons. I say, go for it!


I can't think of any cons. Another problem with the way it is now is that there is too little vehicular traffic on the road under the highway, which leads to fast auto speeds.

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  • 1 month later...

I got in an argument with family members who live in Seattle (my hometown) who don't want the Viaduct torn down because they "like the view from their car as they drive on it".

I'm pretty sure I snorted when they said that.

This plan looks great. Most visionary thing in Seattle since the Seattle Commons proposal.

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People in Boston said the same thing, and I admit, driving from Leverett Circle down the Artery at night was awesome, but the city belongs to the people on the ground, not drivers on expressways.

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  • 4 weeks later...

No cons? :unsure: What about the cost? Where are they gonna get the 4 plus billion dollars that this project it going to cost to finish? They tried to throw down an additional 9 cent tax on everyone's gas but no one wanted that. There's no such thing as a free lunch and it seems like everyone on this board is overlooking one of the most critical factors.

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  • 2 weeks later...

No cons? :unsure:  What about the cost? Where are they gonna get the 4 plus billion dollars that this project it going to cost to finish?  They tried to throw down an additional 9 cent tax on everyone's gas but no one wanted that.  There's no such thing as a free lunch and it seems like everyone on this board is overlooking one of the most critical factors.


If they don't replace it and it literally collapses, how much do you think the lawsuits would cost the taxpayers?

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No cons? :unsure:  What about the cost? Where are they gonna get the 4 plus billion dollars that this project it going to cost to finish?  They tried to throw down an additional 9 cent tax on everyone's gas but no one wanted that.  There's no such thing as a free lunch and it seems like everyone on this board is overlooking one of the most critical factors.


The legislature approved a gas tax increase (9 cents in 2005 with more in future years) to pay for the Viaduct replacement and other projects. I haven't heard if they are going to do the 'Big Dig' approach however..

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