Seawall Funding Plan Moving Forward

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Central Waterfront Seawall construction, 1936

1936: Workers move the last slab of seawall into place, at the foot of Madison Street. (Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives)

The City Council has begun the process for placing a 30-year property tax bond measure on the November ballot to complete the financing package for the Seawall replacement and strengthening.  The Council must make a decision by July in order to place this measure on the ballot.

The City has been working for almost ten years on plans to protect the safety of the waterfront.  The Seawall does not meet modern earthquake standards, and has sustained damage and deterioration over the time since the three different segments were constructed.  The plan has always been to replace the Seawall as part of the overall project to replace the SR 99 Viaduct, and the City has coordinated the timing of this replacement project with the State’s highway construction project.

The Elliott Bay seawall:

  • Protects Seattle’s downtown waterfront from wind-driven storm waves and the erosive tidal forces of Puget Sound and Elliott Bay.
  • Supports and protects major public and private utilities, including power for the western seaboard and downtown Seattle, natural gas, and telecommunications.
  • Supports State Route 99, the ferry terminal, and rail lines, all of which transport local commuters and visitors as well as local, regional, and international freight.

The funding plan for the highway replacement project includes the reconstruction of Alaskan Way, the surface street along the waterfront.  However, the repair and replacement of the Seawall itself is not funded under the state package.  For the last several years, the City has been working on design and environmental analysis in cooperation with the State and the US Army Corps of Engineers (which has permitting jurisdiction over water-related projects as well as the ability to participate financially if that is authorized by Congress).

This spring the design process reached the point where the City was able to provide a well-grounded estimate for the overall cost of the Seawall project.  With that in hand, the Council is ready to advance the funding plan to the voters for approval, and intends to do so as rapidly as possible.  Between now and mid-July, the Council will develop the proposed bond measure during the course of a series of open public meetings.

The projected cost for the Seawall replacement is approximately $300 million.  Of that amount, the City has already secured approximately $60 million: $30 million from the King County Flood Control District, and $30 million from the City’s general fund and other sources.

The timing is now at a critical point.  We now know that the federal environmental review will be completed and permits issued within the next two years.  The timing for the state highway project requires the Seawall project to begin in that time frame and be completed by 2016, when the viaduct is slated for demolition and the funding will be available to replace the surface street on the waterfront.  In order to be ready to go to bid on the project, it is crucial that the City have committed funding in hand within the next year.

The City does not realistically have the resources to fund the remaining $240 million without having a revenue stream to cover these costs.  That is why we are planning to go to the voters to ask for a property tax increase for the bonds.

The good news is that this project is exactly the kind of project that voter-approved bonds are designed for, which means that, unlike a levy, the costs will be relatively modest on a yearly basis since they will be spread over a thirty year period.  Interest rates are also at record low levels.  The result is that a30-year bond for $240 million would cost the owner of a $400K home about $55 to $60 per year.  Unlike a levy, however, which only requires a majority vote, a voter-approved bond requires a 60% majority.  The last voter-approved bond in Seattle was the 1998 Libraries for All measure; 70% of voters supported that measure.  The costs for the Libraries for All bonds, incidentally, were front-loaded onto the first ten years, so there is only a modest remaining annual payment.

In addition to the Seawall and the replacement of Alaskan Way, the overall waterfront project includes other repair/renovation work on the piers and city infrastructure, as well as the construction of the new waterfront promenade and park.  The Council will consider including some of the repairs on the piers as part of this bond issue, as there may be efficiencies in timing of the repairs that may be advantageous as well as less disruption to waterfront businesses.

The funding for the park development will be considered in future years, and will include a special assessment on property owners near the waterfront whose property will increase in value, as well as contributions from private philanthropy and some additional public funding.  That plan will be developed in the next couple of months.