UP #313 After the Tunnel Vote

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Urban Politics #313, 9-8-2011

By City Councilmember Nick Licata

with assistance from L.A. Newell Aldrich



On August 16, Seattle voters approved Referendum 1 by 58%. Although the vote was technically about the City Council’s decision making process, it was widely interpreted as a referendum on the tunnel project itself.

On August 23, the Federal Highway Administration signed a Record of Decision allowing WSDOT to construct the bored tunnel underneath Downtown to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The Record of Decision completes the process of environmental review, and outlines WSDOT’s mitigation measures for the project. It is possible there could be an appeal, although none has been filed.

After the issuance of the Record of Decision, WSDOT authorized work to proceed for final design and construction of the bored tunnel. Initial activities such as utility relocation will begin in the fall. The Council will likely soon vote on finalizing agreements with the state (see UP #306).

In late August, WSDOT announced that most of the Viaduct will be closed for nine days beginning October 21 for work on the southern/SODO section of the Viaduct. It will be closed southbound from the West Seattle Bridge to the Battery Street Tunnel; northbound will be open only from the Royal Brougham on-ramp to the Battery Street Tunnel, from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m.

During the closure, crews will demolish large sections of the southern mile of the Viaduct, and finish building a four-lane surface bypass between King and Royal Brougham that connects to a new SR 99 bridge to the west of the Viaduct. This detour will be in use while the tunnel is being constructed. The tunnel is scheduled to be completed in 2015; the Downtown section of the Viaduct is set for removal afterwards.

WSDOT has posted a video showing what the detour will look like: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0aaX8s3MME.



I believe tunnel critics made a valid point about tolling that we need to address. They argued that tolls, needed to generate $400 million in the budget, would likely divert too much traffic onto city streets.

Having a majority vote in favor of the tunnel should make it easier to address this concern—as well as transit funding needed for the project–because for the first time in ten years, Seattle can address the state legislature with one voice. The need for tolls originated in 2007, when both the cut and cover tunnel and the elevated options were voted down in public votes. The state legislature then removed $400 million from the Viaduct replacement project and dedicated it to S.R. 520 (see UP #303 and 305). This demonstrated the impact that a lack of Seattle unity could have. While we may not expect a reversal of this decision, we have a better chance now of lobbying for some relief in Olympia.

On this front, there are two key developments on addressing tolls. First of all, the City-State agreement passed by the Council created an Advisory Committee on Tolling & Traffic Management with WSDOT, the Mayor, and the City Council each appointing one-third of the members (work was delayed while the referendum was proposed).

The Committee’s charge is to make advisory recommendations to the Governor, State Legislature, WSDOT, and the Council and Mayor on how to minimize traffic diversion from the tunnel due to tolling. The scope of work includes exploring ways to “reduce the level of toll revenue to the bored tunnel project by identifying alternative funding source(s).”

This creates an opportunity to dovetail with Governor Gregoire’s announcement in July that she will convene a “Connecting Washington Task Force” to develop and bring to the state legislature a 10-year funding plan for the 2012 session. This could result in a proposal for a statewide 2012 ballot measure, or other funding.

While the bulk of the Task Force’s work will be to address projects throughout the state including SR 520 and the I-5 Columbia River Crossing, it could propose funding to reduce the level of tolling for the bored tunnel, in particular if it receives a recommendation from the tolling advisory committee. Any reduction from the full $400 million would ameliorate the impacts on city streets and low income persons.



In the heat of campaigns, it can be hard to see what you’ve achieved when the final vote goes against you. Stepping back from the fray, however, I think that supporters of other options can claim some significant gains, even if the options they supported aren’t being built.

After the cut and cover tunnel and the six-lane elevated were voted down in 2007, all subsequent options included a reduction in the number of highway lanes from six to four. In addition, all options included additional transit and transit-related projects on downtown streets, none of which were included before 2007. It’s not been widely publicized—perhaps because surface/transit supporters continued to oppose the tunnel—but from 2007 onward every option incorporated significant elements of the surface/transit proposal.

Supporters of an elevated viaduct wanted unobstructed lanes through downtown, and the bored tunnel will now provide them.  Admittedly the spectacular views available from the current viaduct will be missed; however, current federal railing standards would have significantly compromised views if the Viaduct had been rebuilt.

Perhaps most importantly the bored tunnel avoids multiple year-long shutdowns of SR 99 through Downtown, unlike the two options we voted on in 2007. Even if not by design, those who worked to oppose both options in 2007—namely, surface/transit and retrofit supporters—helped lead to a solution that works best for keeping our economy healthy during construction.



I think ultimately Seattle voters were exhausted by the ten year debate, and ready to move forward. Even if the bored tunnel wasn’t their ideal choice, enough voters were willing to vote in favor of their second choice to achieve a 58% majority.

Three-way polls from 2010 and 2011 showed remarkable consistency on voter preference. Both had 35% supporting a bored tunnel and 21% supporting surface/transit. Support for an elevated was 36% or 38%, depending whether repairing the Viaduct was included. With support divided among three options, it was difficult to reach a majority for any single option.

Looking at the polls one could conclude that 71% support unobstructed lanes through downtown (35% for a bored tunnel and 36% for an elevated), and 56% oppose an elevated viaduct (35% for a bored tunnel and 21% for surface/transit closely mirrors the 57% “no” vote on an elevated in 2007). While the bored tunnel wasn’t the first choice of a majority, it reflects the majority position in favor of unobstructed lanes through downtown and against an elevated highway.

The challenge before us now is to not ignore the problems that a deep bore tunnel presents, but rather to address them by lobbying Olympia with a more unified position from our elected representatives. If we can take that approach we have a better chance of securing tangible benefits for Seattle in the coming sessions.












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