December 17, 2008
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AS A PRELUDE to evaluating Alaskan Way Viaduct options, citizens of the Emerald City should pose a question to themselves and any political nabob who happens by.
Has any project by city or county government in recent years made it simpler or safer to get to work, to get around the city, to take in sports or cultural events or to drop off kids?
My surmise is that a yes answer will come from some members of our influential bicycle lobby, if they can be pulled away from planning a heresy trial of Seattle Times editorial page editor Jim Vesely for suggesting a city bike fee.
With everybody else, the response is likely to be "Huh?" "Give me a break!" or "You're kidding, right?" The familiar sign "Traffic Revision" has come to mean another inconvenience under construction.
On KUOW-FM/94.9 last Friday, without government guidance, our panel stumbled into asking practical questions about the two viaduct options left standing.
"There seem to be an awful lot of traffic lights," host Steve Scher remarked, looking at an artist's gauzy depiction of the surface option, in which Alaskan Way would become a one-way southbound street.
Not far from the P-I Building, new high-rise buildings on Western Avenue have drawn those who want to live near their workplace and find themselves attracted to inner-city living.
How will the new urbanites react when and if their street gets turned into a major northbound state highway with three lanes and a bike lane?
A guy from the state Transportation Department called in, with ready reassurances. The waterfront lights would be synchronized. Traffic that currently drives the viaduct would "disperse" onto city streets, causing less racket on Western Avenue.
Heard that once before, in West Seattle, at a 34th District Democrats' meeting. A leader of the People's Waterfront Coalition pooh-poohed predictions of congestion on Interstate 5 and forecast that 25 percent less traffic would travel the path of a torn-down viaduct.
No evidence was given. The DOT guy who called in Friday based his prediction on "models" that the department had studied.
The truth is: You can't forecast the future.
We don't know whether the surface option will work, whether cars will disperse or disappear. We can't predict its impact on what's left of our working waterfront, and whether commercial traffic will be able to move out of the Port of Seattle.
With his gift for analysis, and tolerance of opposing viewpoints, Dan Savage of The Stranger on Tuesday ridiculed those who complain that all those lights "may add a few minutes to some people's commutes."
"Tough (bleep)!" opined our potty-mouthed pundit.
Heck, I'm a green, have been since childhood. Still, as the offspring of a marine machinist, something in me resists the surety and arrogance of saying "Tough (bleep)!" to waterfront businesses that sustain family-wage jobs, or the ship canal oil company that gets its supplies on Harbor Island.
Nor, despite artists' attempts at elegance, can anyone see "change" in replacing the viaduct with two independent bridge structures. Why would we want to repeat the error of the 1950s, when other cities are removing messy freeways and freeing up their waterfronts?
A bunch of us recently tried at breakfast to explain, to a newly arrived neighbor, how decisions get made in the Emerald City.
My definition came from the Very Rev. Fred Northup, former St. Mark's Cathedral dean: "Seattle is a city where everybody has to be consulted about everything."
From David Brewster of Crosscut.com, there was this gem from ex-Mayor Charley Royer: "We like to chew a lot, but we have trouble swallowing."
The view here is we are not yet ready to swallow, and could gag on either viaduct option.
What's needed is tough, honest analysis of a third option, the combination of a deep-bored tunnel and surface transit.
Speed is one factor: Could a tunnel get dug and be open for traffic before demolition of the existing Alaskan Way Viaduct?
The city has to avoid, at all costs, the kind of prolonged mess that disrupted and degraded Third Avenue when the bus tunnel was built.
The Transportation Department's planners seem to have taken a deep dislike to the deep-bored tunnel option. We've heard sky-high estimates on the cost of going underground.
By contrast, experts consulted by The Cascadia Center of the Discovery Institute have filled my e-mail box with analyses that an inland tunnel option would cost $1.7 billion at most.
Don't know who's right. We need a analysis by a neutral team of experts.
Our decision-makers should consult Washington's congressional delegation on whether a tunnel replacement of an earthquake-vulnerable viaduct fits President-elect Barack Obama's definition of infrastructure repair. We could have a ready-to-go candidate for federal dollars.
All this requires, in Royer-speak, a little more chewing.
But, it a) spares us political gridlock in the Legislature; b)helps us steer clear of clawing in the courtrooms; c) potentially gives us a fast through route for freight and auto traffic; and d) ensures us a waterfront that's not an Aurora Avenue-by-the-sea.
P-I columnist Joel Connelly can be reached at 206-448-8160 or email@example.com