UP #305 The State Legislature and Surface Solution for Alaska Way Viaduct

Home » UP #305 The State Legislature and Surface Solution for Alaska Way Viaduct

January 21, 2011

By Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata.

With assistance from my Legislative Aide, Newell Aldrich.


This past Monday I, along with Councilmembers Bagshaw, Clark, Burgess and Godden, met with over twenty State Legislators to express Seattle’s needs in this session, in light of the immense budget cuts that the state is facing. The legislators’ message was the same: capital budgets are being drained dry to meet school and human service needs. This could have a major impact on funds for Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct (AWV) project.

The last time Seattle voters turned down the elevated and cut and cover tunnel options in 2007, the state legislature took $400 million from the Viaduct project and moved it to the 520 project. That resulted in a new proposal for a toll to fill the $400 million gap. While the debate will rage on about whether the state will pay for any cost overruns on the deep bore tunnel, the flip side of the issue is whether Seattle would keep the money already allocated to this project for a surface road alternative, as the Mayor prefers.

This is where the state legislators come in. None that we talked to indicated a willingness to transfer that money to a surface road project which would run through downtown and be augmented by expanding I-5 and adding more bus service. As recently as last month, in a December 2010 forum,  State Senator Ed Murray, the sponsor of the bored tunnel legislation, spoke strongly against expanding I-5-a key element of a surface option.

Further, in a February 2007 Seattle Times article, State Senator Haugen, Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, was quoted as saying the state might contribute only $1 billion for a surface replacement, and that the money left over from what was allocated for an AWV replacement could be used for 520 or other unfunded projects across the state. State House Transportation Committee Chair Judy Clibborn was quoted expressing similar sentiments.

If the tunnel project were to not move forward, it’s doubtful that the state legislature would quickly support a surface option and shift the needed $2 billion or so to fund it.


An unspoken assumption is that if the tunnel is stopped, we’ll get a surface option instead. UP #303 described the history of efforts to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. This edition of UP will focus on the surface option, which hasn’t received as much attention over the years as other options. First a little history, then I’ll follow up with some thoughts on the funding options.


The 2004 Draft EIS reviewed five options, including a 6-lane surface option that combined SR 99 with Alaskan Way. This surface option included 12 stoplights, with a short viaduct connecting the road to the Battery Street Tunnel, and a speed limit of 30 miles per hour for the entire surface option, as opposed to the posted speed now of 50 miles per hour.

The DEIS projected 74,000 car trips along the waterfront, resulting in nine hours of congestion per day, and average speeds of around 12 miles per hour. It projected significantly higher travel times for through trips (e.g. from the Aurora Bridge to Spokane Street). Travel times increased only slightly for trips from originating elsewhere and ending in Downtown. Downtown traffic was projected to increase by 16%.

The 2005 Alaskan Way Viaduct No Replacement Concept Report focused on a four-lane roadway to replace the Viaduct. It projected 35,000-56,000 vehicles per day, and made a number of assumptions: increased bus service, which would necessitate increased revenue to Metro on a sustained basis; significantly higher transit ridership, assuming that transit would be an attractive alternative and not stuck in the congestion; the monorail, which is not being built; and light rail to Northgate, which will not be reached until long after the current deep bore tunnel is scheduled to be completed.   This Four-Lane Option was included as the “No Replacement” alternative in the 2006 Supplemental Draft EIS.

Two options moved forward for the 2006 EIS: a cut and cover tunnel and an aerial.

In 2006, as then Council President, I commissioned a study of a 6-lane surface option, to further analyze it, as Councilmembers wanted additional information. The study indicated it would result in more pollution, greater congestion, and showed how streets with too much vehicle traffic quickly become pedestrian unfriendly.

The study also noted “If Viaduct capacity were reduced, or trips diverted downtown, future decision-makers would have little flexibility for the surface street system to accommodate transit needs in the future, because the Downtown grid can accommodate about 20-30% of Alaskan Way Viaduct traffic during peak periods; once you get to 40-50%, you start breaching the capacities of the streets.”

The 6-lane surface option wasn’t exactly what some supporters of a surface option wanted, such as the People’s Waterfront Coalition and the Sierra Club, who have advocated for a reduced-capacity road with significantly increased transit, more properly called a surface/transit option.

In 2007 Seattle voters voted against an elevated replacement and a surface/tunnel hybrid (in fairness, the inclusion of “surface” in this option was more marketing than anything else). Subsequently, I co-sponsored Council legislation to create an urban mobility plan. It mentioned considering a phased approach to removal of the Viaduct, construction of a new surface street, and new transit options. This was in line with 2006 legislation that declared a tunnel the Council’s preferred alternative, which recommended development of a transit and surface street option if a tunnel didn’t prove feasible. The Urban Mobility legislation directed SDOT to work with WSDOT and King County.

The Stakeholder Advisory Committee was created by the Governor, Mayor and County Executive soon thereafter, and worked during 2008, studying eight options, including three surface options. Two surface options included a 4-lane boulevard on Alaskan Way to replace SR 99, and a third converted Alaskan Way and Western into one-way three lane streets to replace the Viaduct. The cost estimates were $800-$900 million for each of the three options, but included only the SR 99 road work.

A separate menu of additional work for these three options had cost estimates for work on I-5 ($195-$498 million), city surface streets ($205-$378 million), and transit ($135-$476 million capital costs/$9-$60 million annual operations). This work was considered necessary to some degree for all eight options, because every option assumed diminished capacity on SR 99.

WSDOT then created two options from the eight proposals, one of which was called the I-5/Surface/Transit Hybrid. It converted Alaskan Way and Western into 3-lane one-way streets, with 28 stoplights in a new SR99 corridor on the waterfront. The option included a budget of $929 million for a SR 99 surface street, $553 million to add a lane to I-5, $216 million for city streets, and $476 million for transit. The total cost estimate was $2.2 billion, not including $1.1 billion in work farther south on SR 99 (which has proven less expensive, see UP 303). The intent was that all the elements would be needed to provide a solution.

So a complete surface option is not cheap, as some might believe from the public debate. It has a major capital construction budget.


Perhaps the most compelling element of a surface proposal is financing, because costs can be more easily arranged into a pay-as-you go manner. The cost of the key capital project–$550 million in work on I-5-is less than an elevated, and much cheaper than a tunnel. This does give it a certain appeal, because if some elements cost more than expected, and the budget is running out, most of the work would likely get done, and theoretically at least, cost overruns could be avoided.

However, financing is also the biggest weakness of the surface option, because the state legislature has never made any commitment to funding it, and funding is a decision made only by the state legislature. Unless the state legislature was to sign off on a surface option, the City would be responsible for the costs, which could climb to a billion dollars if a true transit component were included.

When asked about his support for the surface option, and whether it’s realistic, the Mayor has answered-correctly-that elected officials quickly changed their minds and lined up behind a bored tunnel that a month before didn’t even appear to be an option. So why couldn’t the same thing happen again?

It’s a compelling argument. The weakness, however, lies in the unspoken assumption that the state legislature would shift over $2 billion or so to fund a surface replacement. Furthermore, the elected officials who quickly came together were the Governor, most of the City Council, and the former Mayor and King County Executive. The state legislature eventually came on board, but only with a notable lack of enthusiasm, demonstrated in the ambiguous language about cost overruns being covered by Seattle area property owners who benefit from replacing the Viaduct with a tunnel, and a requirement that $400 million be paid for in tolls. This response came even after Seattle agreed to take on several hundred million in tunnel-related costs such as the seawall and utilities.

The funding needs for a surface solution bring us back to the State Legislature. Given their need to vacuum up every available cent from capital projects, the probability of the State taking away a good portion of the current allocated $2 billion for a deep bore tunnel is fairly certain if the City opts for a street surface replacement for the AWV.  We could end up with an even greater financial hit to Seattle property owners than possible cost overruns on the deep bore tunnel.

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